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Barr: Apple hobbled FBI’s efforts to solve shooting

Four months ago the FBI announced that a Saudi air force pilot training at the Pensacola Naval Air Station committed a terrorist act when he shot to death three U.S. sailors and wounded eight other people.

But on Monday the Department of Justice confirmed that the gunman, Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, who himself was killed by a local sheriff’s deputy during the shooting, had lengthy and extensive ties to overseas terrorists. Based on his iPhone data, Alshamrani was associated with al Qaeda operatives before the Dec. 6, 2019, attack — and in fact, even before he came to America.

Justice Department officials maintained that information recovered from Alshamrani’s phone not only filled in blanks regarding his time in Florida but also helped protect Americans overseas. Attorney General Bill Barr also did little to mask his frustration with Apple’s lack of assistance in cracking the case during a press conference.

“Within one day of the shootings, the FBI sought and obtained court orders supported by probable cause authorizing the Bureau to search the contents of both phones as part of its investigation,” Barr said. “The problem was that the phones were locked and the FBI did not have the passwords, so they needed help to get in. We asked Apple for assistance and the president asked Apple for assistance. Unfortunately, Apple would not help us unlock the phones. Apple had deliberately designed them so that only the user, in this case, the terrorist, could gain access to their contents.

“Apple has made a business and marketing decision to design its phones in a way that only the user can unlock the contents no matter what the circumstances,” Barr continued. “We cannot do our jobs when companies put the ability to defeat court authorized searches in the hands of terrorists and predatory criminals. When combating threats to our homeland, we need American tech leaders to work with us, not against us.”

Barr then called for a “legislative solution” to address this issue.


Back in January, Barr had said, “It’s very important for us to know with whom and about what the shooter was communicating before he died.” Critical to that was prying open Alshamrani’s iPhone. According to the FBI, investigators had obtained a court order to search his smartphone within a day of the Pensacola shooting. 

Then, Apple balked, according to Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray on Monday. This was the second time Apple had failed to step up to solve a terrorist attack.

In 2016 Apple rejected the government’s request and court petitions to create new software that would have enabled investigators to hack an iPhone belonging to Syed Rizwan Farook, one of two shooters who murdered 14 people and injured 22 others in San Bernardino, California, in December 2015.

At that time, Apple CEO Tim Cook defended the stance, saying compelling his engineers to create such software would undermine the data security of all Apple customers. Moreover, he argued, the government would set a terrible precedent for U.S. companies by mandating Apple’s cooperation.

The FBI relented in seeking Apple’s help after an Israeli firm was able to hack Farook’s phone.

Cook makes a good point, and we should be wary of green-lighting forced cooperation by companies. But Apple’s arguments against aiding the FBI when American lives are at stake ring hollow, considering its record in China.

In recent years at the request of the Chinese government, the tech giant has removed software from its phones that enabled Chinese citizens access to news from outside the country, that allowed pro-democracy protesters to ascertain where police might be cracking down and that permitted citizens to disguise their internet activity. Apple also opened a data center in China which could have exposed its customer base to the prying eyes of the Chinese government.

Unless it reassesses its current approach, Apple could earn a reputation as the favored provider of both Big Brother and terrorist networks. 


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