U.S. Attorney General asks Apple directly to ‘provide access’ to two iPhones used by Pensacola gunman

The United States Attorney General has made a straightforward request of Apple: unlock a pair of iPhones owned by the individual who recently attacked the Pensacola naval air station in the state of Florida.

U.S. AG William Barr has officially declared that the recent shooting at the naval air station was an act of terrorism, and, as a result, turned things up with Apple as he has directly requested that the company “provide access” to the two iPhones used by the gunman. The New York Times has the report on Monday.

Barr went as far as to say that Apple has not provided any “substantive assistance” in the matter to date, and, once again, said that companies like Apple and others should find a solution to give the public “access to digital evidence”.

From AG Barr:

This situation perfectly illustrates why it is critical that the public be able to get access to digital evidence.

Up to this point, Apple has done what it can — and what it does in cases like this — and provided law enforcement agencies with information from the gunman’s iCloud account. However, as is par for the course, Apple has not gone to any extreme lengths to “open the phones themselves”, a thing the company cannot do even if it wanted to.

Justice Department officials said that they need access to Mr. Alshamrani’s phones to see messages from encrypted apps like Signal or WhatsApp to determine whether he had discussed his plans with others at the base and whether he was acting alone or with help.

The rise in attention from the U.S. Attorney General comes one week after the Justice Department, via the FBI’s top lawyer, Dana Boente, asked Apple to unlock the phones completely so investigators could have full access. At the time Apple made it clear that it would hand over what it could, but, beyond that, it wasn’t possible to reach the level of accessibility the FBI and DOJ want.

This is absolutely well-worn ground by Apple and the DOJ. Back in 2016 the company and the federal agency ran afoul of one another after another high-profile shooting in the United States, and, again, the gunman used an iPhone. The FBI wanted Apple to do anything at all to allow access to that device, and future devices, but Apple wouldn’t relent.

So history tells us that Apple is not going to back down from this position in 2020, either. Will the FBI find another private company, just like it did before, to bypass the iPhone’s encryption? It’s certainly likely. But the DOJ is trying to skip that middleman altogether yet again.

The fact that the U.S. AG is directly requesting Apple’s assistance will put Apple in the crosshairs all over again, and make this more of a public matter than ever before. But Apple started this year by defending its use of encryption and the overall privacy and security of its customers, so it’s not likely the company will change tactics anytime soon — even with the renewed pressure from the DOJ.