Categories
Apple Inc Barr, William P computer security Computers and the Internet Cook, Timothy D Corporate Social Responsibility iPhone Justice Department Naval Air Station Pensacola Shooting (2019) privacy Software Uncategorized United States Politics and Government

Apple Takes a (Cautious) Stand Against Opening a Killer’s iPhones

SAN FRANCISCO — Apple is privately preparing for a legal fight with the Justice Department to defend encryption on its iPhones while publicly trying to defuse the dispute, as the technology giant navigates an increasingly tricky line between its customers and the Trump administration.

Timothy D. Cook, Apple’s chief executive, has marshaled a handful of top advisers, while Attorney General William P. Barr has taken aim at the company and asked it to help penetrate two phones used by a gunman in a deadly shooting last month at a naval air station in Pensacola, Fla.

Executives at Apple have been surprised by the case’s quick escalation, said people familiar with the company who were not authorized to speak publicly. And there is frustration and skepticism among some on the Apple team working on the issue that the Justice Department hasn’t spent enough time trying to get into the iPhones with third-party tools, said one person with knowledge of the matter.

The situation has become a sudden crisis at Apple that pits Mr. Cook’s longstanding commitment to protecting people’s privacy against accusations from the United States government that it is putting the public at risk. The case resembles Apple’s clash with the F.B.I. in 2016 over another dead gunman’s phone, which dragged on for months.

This time, Apple is facing off against the Trump administration, which has been unpredictable. The stakes are high for Mr. Cook, who has built an unusual alliance with President Trump that has helped Apple largely avoid damaging tariffs in the trade war with China. That relationship will now be tested as Mr. Cook confronts Mr. Barr, one of the president’s closest allies.

“We are helping Apple all of the time on TRADE and so many other issues, and yet they refuse to unlock phones used by killers, drug dealers and other violent criminal elements,” Mr. Trump said Tuesday in a post on Twitter. “They will have to step up to the plate and help our great Country.”

Apple declined to comment on the issue on Tuesday. Late Monday, after Mr. Barr had complained that the company had provided no “substantive assistance” in gaining access to the phones used in the Pensacola shooting, Apple said it rejected that characterization. It added that “encryption is vital to protecting our country and our users’ data.”

But Apple also offered conciliatory language, in a sign that it did not want the showdown to intensify. The company said it was working with the F.B.I. on the Pensacola case, with its engineers recently holding a call to provide technical assistance.

“We will work tirelessly to help them investigate this tragic attack on our nation,” Apple said.

At the heart of the tussle is a debate between Apple and the government over whether security or privacy trumps the other. Apple has said it chooses not to build a “backdoor” way for governments to get into iPhones and to bypass encryption because that would create a slippery slope that could damage people’s privacy.

The government has argued it is not up to Apple to choose whether to provide help, as the Fourth Amendment allows the government to violate individual privacy in the interest of public safety. Privacy has never been an absolute right under the Constitution, Mr. Barr said in a speech in October.

Mr. Cook publicly took a stand on privacy in 2016 when Apple fought a court order from the F.B.I. to open the iPhone of a gunman involved in a San Bernardino, Calif., mass shooting. The company said it could open the phone in a month, using a team of six to 10 engineers. But in a blistering, 1,100-word letter to Apple customers at the time, Mr. Cook warned that creating a way for the authorities to gain access to someone’s iPhone “would undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect.”

Bruce Sewell, Apple’s former general counsel who helped lead the company’s response in the San Bernardino case, said in an interview last year that Mr. Cook had staked his reputation on the stance. Had Apple’s board not agreed with the position, Mr. Cook was prepared to resign, Mr. Sewell said.

The San Bernardino case was bitterly contested by the government and Apple until a private company came forward with a way to break into the phone. Since then, Mr. Cook has made privacy one of Apple’s core values. That has set Apple apart from tech giants like Facebook and Google, which have faced scrutiny for vacuuming up people’s data to sell ads.

“It’s brilliant marketing,” Scott Galloway, a New York University marketing professor who has written a book on the tech giants, said of Apple. “They’re so concerned with your privacy that they’re willing to wave the finger at the F.B.I.”

Mr. Cook’s small team at Apple is now aiming to steer the current situation toward an outside resolution that doesn’t involve the company breaking its own security, even as it prepares for a potential legal battle over the issue, said the people with knowledge of the thinking.

Some of the frustration within Apple over the Justice Department is rooted in how police have previously exploited software flaws to break into iPhones. The Pensacola gunman’s phones were an iPhone 5 and an iPhone 7 Plus, according to a person familiar with the investigation who declined to be named because the detail was confidential.

Those phones, released in 2012 and 2016, lack Apple’s most sophisticated encryption. The iPhone 5 is even older than the device in the San Bernardino case, which was an iPhone 5C.

Security researchers and a former senior Apple executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity said tools from at least two companies, Cellebrite and Grayshift, have long been able to bypass the encryption on those iPhone models.

Cellebrite said in an email that it helps “thousands of organizations globally to lawfully access and analyze” digital information; it declined to comment on an active investigation. Grayshift declined to comment.

Cellebrite’s and Grayshift’s tools exploit flaws in iPhone software that let them remove limits on how many passwords can be tried before the device erases its data, the researchers said. Typically, iPhones allow 10 password attempts. The tools then use a so-called brute-force attack, or repeated automated attempts of thousands of passcodes, until one works.

“The iPhone 5 is so old, you are guaranteed that Grayshift and Cellebrite can break into those every bit as easily as Apple could,” said Nicholas Weaver, a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, who has taught iPhone security.

Chuck Cohen, who recently retired as head of the Indiana State Police’s efforts to break into encrypted devices, said his team used a $15,000 device from Grayshift that enabled it to regularly get into iPhones, particularly older ones, though the tool didn’t always work.

In the San Bernardino case, the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General later found the F.B.I. had not tried all possible solutions before trying to force Apple to unlock the phone. In the current case, Mr. Barr and other Justice Department officials have said they have exhausted all options, though they declined to detail exactly why third-party tools have failed on these phones as the authorities seek to learn if the gunman acted alone or coordinated with others.

“The F.B.I.’s technical experts — as well as those consulted outside of the organization — have played an integral role in this investigation,” an F.B.I. spokeswoman said. “The consensus was reached, after all efforts to access the shooter’s phones had been unsuccessful, that the next step was to reach out to start a conversation with Apple.”

Security researchers speculated that in the Pensacola case, the F.B.I. might still be trying a brute-force attack to get into the phones. They said major physical damage may have impeded any third-party tools from opening the devices. The Pensacola gunman had shot the iPhone 7 Plus once and tried destroying the iPhone 5, according to F.B.I. photos.

The F.B.I. said it fixed the iPhones in a lab so that they would turn on, but the authorities still couldn’t bypass their encryption. Security researchers and the former Apple executive said any damage that prevented third-party tools from working would also preclude a solution from Apple.

A Justice Department spokeswoman said in an email: “Apple designed these phones and implemented their encryption. It’s a simple, ‘front-door’ request: Will Apple help us get into the shooter’s phones or not?”

While Apple has closed loopholes that police have used to break into its devices and resisted some law enforcement requests for access, it has also routinely helped police get information from phones in cases that don’t require it to break its encryption. Apple has held seminars for police departments on how to quickly get into a suspect’s phone, and it has a hotline and dedicated team to aid police in time-sensitive cases.

In the past seven years, Apple has also complied with roughly 127,000 requests from American law enforcement agencies for data stored on its computer servers. Such data is unencrypted and access is possible without a customer’s passcode.

In 2016, when the standoff between Apple and the government was at its most acrimonious, Mr. Cook said Congress should pass a law to decide the boundaries between public safety and technological security. In court filings, Apple even identified an applicable law, the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act.

On Monday, Mr. Barr said the Trump administration had revived talks with Congress to come up with such a law.

Jack Nicas reported from San Francisco, and Katie Benner from Washington.

Categories
Alshamrani, Mohammed Saeed Apple Inc Barr, William P computer security Federal Bureau of Investigation Justice Department Mass Shootings Naval Air Station Pensacola Shooting (2019) privacy San Bernardino, Calif, Shooting (2015) Uncategorized United States Defense and Military Forces United States Politics and Government

Barr Asks Apple to Unlock Pensacola Killer’s Phones, Setting Up Clash

WASHINGTON — Attorney General William P. Barr declared on Monday that a deadly shooting last month at a naval air station in Pensacola, Fla., was an act of terrorism, and he asked Apple in an unusually high-profile request to provide access to two phones used by the gunman.

Mr. Barr’s appeal was an escalation of a continuing fight between the Justice Department and Apple pitting personal privacy against public safety.

“This situation perfectly illustrates why it is critical that the public be able to get access to digital evidence,” Mr. Barr said. He called on technology companies to find a solution and complained that Apple had provided no “substantive assistance,” a charge that the company strongly denied on Monday night, saying it had been working with the F.B.I. since the day of the shooting.

Detailing the results of the investigation into the Dec. 6 shooting that killed three sailors and wounded eight others, Mr. Barr said the gunman, Second Lt. Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani — a Saudi Air Force cadet training with the American military — had displayed extremist leanings.

Mr. Alshamrani warned on last year’s anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that “the countdown has begun” and posted other anti-American, anti-Israeli and jihadist social media messages, some within hours of attacking the base, Mr. Barr said. “The evidence shows that the shooter was motivated by jihadist ideology,” the attorney general said.

The government has also removed from the country some 21 Saudi students who trained with the American military, Mr. Barr said. He stressed that investigators found no connection to the shooting among the cadets, but said that some had links to extremist movements or possessed child pornography. Mr. Barr said the cases were too weak to prosecute but that Saudi Arabia kicked the trainees out of the program.

The battle between the government and technology companies over advanced encryption and other digital security measures has simmered for years. Apple, which stopped routinely helping the government unlock phones in late 2014 as it adopted a more combative stance and unveiled a more secure operating system, has argued that data privacy is a human rights issue. If Apple developed a way to allow the American government into its phones, its executives argued, hackers or foreign governments like China would exploit the tool.

But frustrated law enforcement officials accuse Apple of providing a haven for criminals. They have long pushed for a legislative solution to the problem of “going dark,” their term for how increasingly secure phones have made it harder to solve crimes, and the Pensacola investigation gives them a prominent chance to make their case.

In a statement Monday night, Apple said the substantive aid it had provided law enforcement agencies included giving investigators access to the gunman’s iCloud account and transaction data for multiple accounts.

The company’s statement did not say whether Apple engineers would help the government get into the phones themselves. It said that “Americans do not have to choose between weakening encryption and solving investigations” because there are now so many ways for the government to obtain data from Apple’s devices — many of which Apple routinely helps the government execute.

It will not back down from its unequivocal support of encryption that is impossible to crack, people close to the company said.

Justice Department officials said that they needed access to Mr. Alshamrani’s phones to see data and messages from encrypted apps like Signal or WhatsApp to determine whether he had discussed his plans with others at the base and whether he was acting alone or with help.

“We don’t want to get into a world where we have to spend months and even years exhausting efforts when lives are in the balance,” Mr. Barr said. “We should be able to get in when we have a warrant that establishes that criminal activity is underway.”

The confrontation echoed the legal standoff over an iPhone used by a gunman who killed 14 people in a terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Calif., in late 2015. Apple defied a court order to assist the F.B.I. in its efforts to search his device, setting off a fight over whether privacy enabled by impossible-to-crack encryption harmed public safety.

The San Bernardino dispute was resolved when the F.B.I. found a private company to bypass the iPhone’s encryption. Tensions between the two sides, however, remained, and Apple worked to ensure that neither the government nor private contractors could open its phones.

Image
Credit…Robyn Beck/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mr. Barr said that Trump administration officials have again begun discussing a legislative fix.

But the F.B.I. has been bruised by Mr. Trump’s unsubstantiated complaints that former officials plotted to undercut his presidency and by a major inspector general’s report last month that revealed serious errors with aspects of the Russia investigation. A broad bipartisan consensus among lawmakers allowing the bureau to broaden its surveillance authorities is most likely elusive, though some lawmakers singled out Apple for its refusal to change its stance.

“Companies shouldn’t be allowed to shield criminals and terrorists from lawful efforts to solve crimes and protect our citizens,” Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, said in a statement. “Apple has a notorious history of siding with terrorists over law enforcement. I hope in this case they’ll change course and actually work with the F.B.I.”

Apple typically complies with court orders to turn over information on its servers. But said that it would turn over only the data it had, implying that it would not work to unlock the phones.

Investigators secured a court order within a day of the shooting, allowing them to search the phones, Mr. Barr said. He turned up the pressure on Apple a week after the F.B.I.’s top lawyer, Dana Boente, asked the company for help searching Mr. Alshamrani’s iPhones.

Officials said that the F.B.I. was still trying to gain access to the phones on its own and approached Apple only after asking other government agencies, foreign governments and third-party technology vendors for help, to no avail.

The devices were older models: an iPhone 7 with a fingerprint reader and an iPhone 5, according to a person familiar with the investigation.

Justice Department officials said that investigators have yet to make a final determination about whether Mr. Alshamrani conspired with others. They said that the Saudi government was offering “unprecedented” cooperation but that “we need to get into those phones.”

Mr. Barr and other law enforcement officials described a 15-minute shootout before security officers shot and killed Mr. Alshamrani. During the firefight, Mr. Alshamrani paused at one point to shoot one of his phones once, Mr. Barr said, adding that his other phone was also damaged but that the F.B.I. was able to repair them well enough to be searched.

Mr. Alshamrani also shot at photographs of President Trump and one of his predecessors, said David Bowdich, the deputy director of the F.B.I. A person familiar with the investigation identified the unnamed president as George W. Bush.

Mr. Alshamrani’s weapon was lawfully purchased in Florida under an exemption that allows nonimmigrant visa holders to buy firearms if they have a valid hunting license or permit, officials said.

Law enforcement officials have continued to discuss Mr. Alshamrani’s phones with Apple, they said.

“We’re not trying to weaken encryption, to be clear,” Mr. Bowdich said at a news conference, noting that the issue has come up with thousands of devices that investigators want to see in other cases.

“We talk about this on a daily basis,” he said. Mr. Bowdich was the bureau’s top agent overseeing the San Bernardino investigation and was part of the effort to push Apple to crack into the phone in that case.

But much has also changed for Apple in the years since Tim Cook, its chief executive, excoriated the Obama administration publicly and privately in 2014 for attacking strong encryption. Obama officials who were upset by Apple’s stance on privacy, along with its decision to shelter billions of dollars in offshore accounts and make its products almost exclusively in China, aired those grievances quietly.

Now Apple is fighting the Trump administration, and Mr. Trump has shown far more willingness to publicly criticize companies and public figures. When he recently claimed falsely that Apple had opened a manufacturing plant in Texas at his behest, the company remained silent rather than correct him.

At the same time, Apple has financially benefited more under Mr. Trump than under President Barack Obama. It reaped a windfall from the Trump administration’s tax cuts, and Mr. Trump said he might shield Apple from the country’s tariff war with China.

He had said last month that finding a way for law enforcement to gain access to encrypted technology was one of the Justice Department’s “highest priorities.”

Mr. Alshamrani, who was killed at the scene of the attack, came to the United States in 2017 and soon started strike-fighter training in Florida. Investigators believe he may have been influenced by extremists as early as 2015.

Mr. Barr rejected reports that other Saudi trainees had known of and recorded video of the shooting. Mr. Alshamrani arrived at the scene by himself, and others in the area began recording the commotion only after he had opened fire, Mr. Barr said. They and other Saudi cadets cooperated with the inquiry, he added.

Jack Nicas contributed reporting from San Francisco.