Attorney General Barr Presses Apple for an iPhone Backdoor

Conflict between the Trump administration and Apple escalates, with Attorney General William Barr pressing the company for a backdoor. Such a move, however, would make the iPhone an easier target for hackers.

By Chand Bellur

January 15, 2020 at 8:55 p.m. PDT

Apple Accused of Putting Profit Before Safety

Apple and the Trump administration are embroiled in a battle of values. On one side, Apple seeks to protect user privacy. The Trump administration, however, feels that the company should develop a backdoor for government agencies to easily obtain customer data.

Requests to obtain user data would still need to go through due legal process. Apple has not developed a backdoor for the iPhone, however. A portal into iPhone user data would have to be developed, at Apple’s expense.

The conflict heated up recently, with Trump Tweeting his displeasure with Apple’s privacy standards. Attorney General William Barr accused Apple of not offering assistance. Apple consistently refutes this point by contending that they do not have a backdoor into the iPhone and will not develop one. It compromises customer privacy. Apple assisted the FBI with every possible request, which conflicts with Barr’s assessment.

William Barr Holds Apple Accountable at Press Conference

On Monday, Attorney General William Barr held a press conference, pointing out Apple’s lack of cooperation with the recent Pensacola, Florida shooting. Barr said:

“This situation perfectly illustrates why it is critical that investigators be able to get access to digital evidence once they have obtained a court order based on probable cause…”

While this seems like a reasonable request, Apple doesn’t have a way to access user data on an iPhone. They have cooperated with every other request for user data, providing information from their servers about the shooter. The Attorney General has misled the public about Apple’s level of cooperation, claiming they have “not given us any substantive assistance”.

Without a backdoor, iPhone data that hasn’t been synced to Apple’s servers cannot be accessed. They simply do not have a backdoor into the iPhone, as it would comprise security.

Barr followed up by asking Apple and other tech providers for a solution:

“We call on Apple and other technology companies to help us find a solution so that we can better protect the lives of Americans and prevent future attacks.”

The value debate between freedom, privacy and safety is challenging, pitting fear over reality. Powerful mobile devices can enable tragic events, as assailants can communicate and coordinate attacks without detection.

This is nothing new, however. Criminals have been communicating using clandestine methods for decades. If Apple and others start tapping into their customer’s devices, criminals will simply adapt and change tactics.

Apple and other tech companies would have to fund development of backdoors, creating security vulnerabilities in their products. It’s highly unlikely that they will participate. Customers would bristle at the move, and there’s no legally compelling reason for them to make such a counterproductive change.

FBI Hires Third Party Company to Unlock iPhones

As with the San Bernardino shooter, the FBI contracted with a third party firm to retrieve data on the Pensacola shooter’s iPhone. An entire industry has emerged, offering to hack into Apple and Android devices, with great success.

It turns out that, if one has physical access to the device, it’s possible to break into an iPhone or virtually any device.

This reality seems to indicate that the Trump administration is criticizing Apple to draw attention away from impeachment hearings. Dishonesty about Apple’s cooperation and the fact that they were able to access the data seem to undermine their complaint, making it appear as more of a red herring.

It’s important to realize that your iPhone can be accessed. Data can be retrieved. For the most part, no one wants to go through that expense to look at your selfies. Law enforcement can, however, access data on suspects’ devices. The top leadership of U.S. law enforcement seems to have a hazy understanding of the situation. It could be that this is an intentional attempt to distract attention from other, more serious matters.

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