Barr Chides Apple for Allegedly Failing to Provide Help to Unlock Pensacola Shooter’s Phones

May 18, 2020 Updated: May 18, 2020

Attorney General William Barr has expressed disappointment at Apple for allegedly failing to provide assistance to investigators who were attempting to gain access to two iPhones used by the Pensacola shooter while accusing the technology company of double-standards in how it handles its security requests.

The criticism was made during a press conference on Monday when federal authorities announced that the FBI had successfully broken through the encryption of two iPhones used by Mohammed Alshamrani, who launched a terror attack at the Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida in December last year, killing three U.S. sailors and wounding eight other Americans. Alshamrani was a flight student at Pensacola, where members of foreign militaries are routinely trained by the United States.

Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray said the phones contained previously unknown information that definitively established Alshamrani’s “significant ties” to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Authorities said the information showed that Alshamrani was radicalized before arriving in the United States for training in 2015 and had prepared for terror activities years ago.

“The trove of information found on these phones has proven to be invaluable to this ongoing investigation and critical to the security of the American people,” Barr said. “However, if not for our FBI’s ingenuity, some luck, and hours upon hours of time and resources, this information would have remained undiscovered.”

Authorities said a day after the shooting, investigated sought and received court orders to allow them to search the contents of Alshamrani’s iPhones. They approached Apple for assistance in early January when they were unable to break through the company’s security features and had “exhausted all readily available options.”

But Apple declined to cooperate, Barr said, despite calls from the Justice Department and President Donald Trump. Wray echoed Barr’s remarks saying that the FBI had “effectively no help from Apple.”

iPhones - pensacola shooter
Images of two Apple iPhones that the Pensacola naval base shooter, Royal Saudi Air Force 2nd Lt. Mohammed Alshamrani, tried to destroy are on display at a press conference at the Justice Department in Washington on Jan, 13, 2020. (Charlotte Cuthbertson/The Epoch Times)

During the press conference, Barr said Apple’s decision to decline to assist carries “dangerous consequences for public safety and national security,” which the attorney general said was “unacceptable.”

The FBI took four months and large sums of taxpayer dollars to break through Apple’s encryption in order to access the data on Alshamrani’s phones, Barr said.

He said Apple’s desire to provide privacy for its customers is understandable but in cases where a court orders a search warrant for a criminal investigation, “an individual’s privacy interests must yield to the broader needs of public safety.”

“There is no reason why companies like Apple cannot design their consumer products and apps to allow for court-authorized access by law enforcement while maintaining very high standards of data security,” he said.

He also accused Apple, while citing media reports, of applying a double standard by allegedly accommodating to authoritarian regimes such as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Russian regime in order to further its business interests, such as “relocating data centers to enable bulk surveillance by those governments.”

Apple announced in 2018 that it would hand over remote iCloud storage for Chinese users to Guizhou Cloud Big Data, a company with intimate links to the People’s Liberation Army, to comply with the Chinese regime’s cybersecurity law.

He also alleged that Apple has “reportedly disabled features and applications on iPhones used by pro-democracy advocates, thereby facilitating censorship and oppression.”

“If technology companies like Apple are willing to oblige the demands of authoritarian regimes, they certainly have no excuse for failing to cooperate with rule-of-law nations that respect civil liberties and privacy rights, and have judicial safeguards,” Barr said.

He also said that the circumstances in Alshamrani’s case demonstrate the need for Congress to provide a “legislative solution.”

“The truth is that we needed luck, in addition to ingenuity, to get into the phones this time,” he said. “There is no guarantee that we will be successful again or that a delay of four months (or longer) will not have significant consequences for the safety of Americans.”

Apple did not respond to The Epoch Times’ request for comment.

In a statement to media outlets, Apple pushed back on Barr’s criticism, saying that they were “false claims” which were used as “an excuse to weaken encryption and other security measures that protect millions of users and our national security.”

“It is because we take our responsibility to national security so seriously that we do not believe in the creation of a backdoor—one which will make every device vulnerable to bad actors who threaten our national security and the data security of our customers,” the company said in the statement.

This is not the first time the Justice Department has sparred with Apple regarding the extent companies have to comply with government requests to assist with unlocking phones involved in criminal investigations. In 2015, the Justice Department sued Apple after it resisted government efforts to gain access to an iPhone belonging to the shooter in San Bernardino, California, who killed 14 people in a terrorist attack. The FBI put a hold on the court order after it found another way to get into the phone.

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