Apple could be headed for another battle with the FBI after the agency requested help unlocking 2 iPhones belonging to the suspected Florida shooter


FILE PHOTO: The main gate at Naval Air Station Pensacola is seen on Navy Boulevard in Pensacola, Florida, U.S. March 16, 2016. Picture taken March 16, 2016.  U.S. Navy/Patrick Nichols/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

  • The FBI sent a letter to Apple on Monday asking for help unlocking two iPhones thought to belong to the suspected shooter who killed three people at Pensacola, Florida Naval Air Station last month.
  • The case bears similarities to the San Bernardino shooting of 2015, which led to a major standoff between the FBI and Apple.
  • In the San Bernardino case, Apple refused to help the FBI break the encryption on the shooter’s iPhone, saying it would create a security backdoor which would make every other iPhone vulnerable. Eventually the FBI dropped the case after finding an unidentified third party to help it break into the device.
  • Apple says it has already assisted the FBI in the case of the Pensacola shooter, but did not say whether it would help open the iPhones.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The FBI could be headed for another major showdown with Apple.

The agency sent a letter to Apple on Monday evening requesting its assistance in unlocking two iPhones believed to have belonged to Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, the suspected gunman who killed three people at the Pensacola, Florida Naval Air Station last month. Alshamrani was a Saudi airforce trainee, and was killed at the scene by a deputy.

NBC was the first to report the news, and anonymous sources confirmed to the New York Times that the letter had been sent. General Counsel Dana Boente wrote in the letter that even though Alshamrani is dead the FBI wants to search his phones “out of an abundance of caution.”

Apple said it had already helped the FBI with the case, but did not say whether they would help access the iPhones.

“When the FBI requested information from us relating to this case a month ago, we gave them all of the data in our possession and we will continue to support them with the data we have available,” the spokesman said.

Another problem with breaking into Alshamrani’s phones is that one of them was struck by a bullet when Alshamrani was killed, a law enforcement official told NBC.

This isn’t the first time the FBI has asked Apple to help them break into a shooter’s iPhone, and in the past it has been a major point of contention.

In 2015 FBI made a similar request following a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, which left 14 people dead. The FBI asked Apple to open the iPhone of one of the shooters. Apple responded that since it builds encryption into its iPhones it doesn’t have access to the password that would unlock the device, and building a backdoor into its devices would create a security risk that would leave its customers vulnerable.

The case turned into a standoff, with CEO Tim Cook writing an open letter in early 2016 accusing the government of overreaching. “The government suggests this tool could only be used once, on one phone. But that’s simply not true. Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices,” he wrote.

Dana Boente.JPG

The FBI filed a lawsuit against Apple, but a day before the court date was scheduled it announced it had found a third party to unlock the iPhone. In an interview last year Apple CEO Tim Cook said he wished the case had gone to court.

The FBI’s Monday letter made a subtle reference to the San Bernardino case.

Dana Boente wrote that the FBI had already asked for help from other agencies, outside experts, and “familiar contacts in the third-party vendor community.”

A US inspector general ruled in 2018 that the FBI had not exhausted all its investigative options before demanding Apple open the phone.

Apple could be headed for a tougher showdown than in 2016 since Attorney General William Barr has been making numerous public statements criticising encryption for impeding law enforcement. Increasingly Barr has been pressuring tech companies such as Apple and Facebook to give authorities access to encrypted messages.

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SEE ALSO: Tim Cook said Apple’s fight with the FBI in 2016 was a ‘very rigged case,’ and he wishes it went to court

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