FBI Cracks Pensacola Shooter’s iPhone

image credit: Federal Bureau of Investigation

By Chand Bellur

May 18, 2020 at 1:25 p.m. PT

  • On December 6, 2019, Saudi aviation student Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani opened fire at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida, killing four and wounding eight others.
  • Apple denied the FBI’s request to unlock the shooter’s iPhone, as they do not have a backdoor into iOS or the device.
  • The FBI finally unlocked Alshamrani’s iPhone using a brute-force passcode guessing technique.

FBI and Apple iPhone Unlocking Conflict

Apple prides itself in providing products that ensure consumer privacy. While other technology providers’ business models center around surveillance capitalism, Apple merely provides devices and services.

The problem is that sometimes bad actors use Apple products. Their devices are so popular and ubiquitous, mass shooters and criminals often use the iPhone and other Apple products. Apple has no back door into its products, as it would enable cyber attacks. To date, the company refuses to add such surveillance capabilities to their devices.

The first high profile conflict between Apple and the FBI occurred after the San Bernadino shooting. Apple made the same claim that they make today — there’s no backdoor into the iPhone. They refuse to create one as it would compromise security. The FBI hired a security firm that was able to hack into the shooter’s device. It’s a long, tedious process, which proves just how secure Apple devices are.

Alshamrani’s killing spree in Pensacola created similar circumstances. This time, attorney general William Barr pursued Apple with more vigor. The result, however, was the same. Apple still does not have a back door into the iPhone. Creating one would take time, effort, funding, and compromise the security and privacy of the end product. Apple once again refused to budge.

The FBI was finally just able to hack into the shooter’s phone. Using a brute-force technique, numerous passcodes attempts eventually provided access to the data. 

Unlocking the phone allowed the FBI to link the shooter to Al Queda once again. The terrorist organization had already claimed responsibility for the act.

Some Lawmakers Want an iPhone Backdoor

Apple stands accused of not helping enough; however, they complied with every possible FBI request. The shooter’s iCloud data was handed over to the FBI, indicating Apple’s willingness to cooperate. What they refused to do — unlock the shooter’s iPhone — is not a simple task. It requires adding a backdoor to the iPhone, which would only help with future requests, making the device much less secure.

Lawmakers are not engineers and have different motivations. Their main goal is to get re-elected, which relies on pleasing interest groups and voters, to a lesser extent. If an issue raises concern, they’re more likely to address it.

The current administration operates more like a reality TV show than a governing body. They rely on social media to feed televised outrage over multiple issues, changing by the minute. Today, Apple is on the hot seat. This incident may blow over; however, there is a legislative push to force Apple to create an iPhone backdoor.

Current legislation, known as the EARN IT act, aims to force tech corporations into building backdoors. Lawmakers want Apple and other tech companies to cooperate with law enforcement requests, unlocking devices if ordered by a court of law.

Both parties support the EARN IT act. It’s currently the most popular legislative effort to open encrypted devices. Lawmakers have offered to let Apple, Google, Facebook, and others come up with their solutions, using EARN IT as a motivating threat. Of course, tech corporations like Apple will fight the law, perhaps tying it up in court for years.

The future of Apple device security is unknown, but expect them to make some compromise. Apple has no problem complying with warrants and FISA requests. If the data is on their servers, they’ll hand it over to law enforcement.

With the Pensacola shooter, some of his data had yet to sync with iCloud. In this case, unlocking the device is the only way to access this local data. It’s highly likely that Apple will need to provide some way to access restricted data on devices. If they don’t do this themselves, governments around the world will force them to do this.

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