Trump Slams Apple for Refusing to Unlock Suspected Shooter’s iPhones

Legal battle pitting Feds against the tech giant over data privacy and device security in criminal cases seems inevitable.

President Donald Trump has weighed in on Apple’s decision not to help the FBI unlock iPhones of the suspect in a shooting in Florida, slamming the company in a Tweet that demands Apple “step up to the plate and help our great Country.”

The president on Tuesday suggested that Apple has benefited substantially from government decisions and laws, and thus should give up the cautious stance it’s taken to protect customer privacy in favor of helping the Feds catching criminals.

“We are helping Apple all of the time on TRADE and so many other issues, and yet they refuse to unlock phones used by killers, drug dealers and other violent criminal elements,” Trump wrote. “They will have to step up to the plate and help our great Country, NOW!”

Trump’s comments were in response to Apple’s refusal on Monday to unlock two password-protected iPhones belonging to Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, a Saudi-born Air Force cadet and suspect in a shooting that killed three people in December at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Fla.

The FBI sent a letter to Apple’s general counsel last week asking the company to help the agency crack the iPhones, as their attempts until that point to guess the “relevant passcodes” had been unsuccessful, according to the letter, which was obtained by NBC News.

Attorney General William Barr followed up that request with a declaration Monday that the shooting was an act of terrorism and reiterated law enforcement’s plea to Apple to unlock Alshamrani’s phones—an iPhone 7 and iPhone 5. Alshamrani, who is believed to have acted alone, was killed during a shootout with security officers at the base.

Apple, for its part, is standing firm in a move reminiscent of a similar scenario that occurred during the investigation of a 2015 shooting in California. In that case—which also was categorized by the Feds as terrorism–the FBI asked Apple to unlock the phone of Syed Farook, one of two men who carried out a shooting attack on a city meeting in San Bernardino, Calif.

Eventually, the DoJ took Apple to court and it was ruled the company had to unlock the iPhone; however, the FBI in the end used third-party hackers instead to crack it.

Apple’s staunch refusal once again to help the Bureau on the basis of setting a dangerous precedent—one in which the FBI could demand a backdoor into any person’s device–could once again pit the government against Apple in court to argue over data privacy in the case of criminal investigations.

Indeed, Apple seems to be resigned to a legal battle and is quietly preparing for one, even as it tries to defuse the situation publicly, according to a report published in the New York Times Tuesday.

Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook has been consulting with a number of top advisers over how to handle the situation, which executives said has escalated more quickly than they anticipated, according to report, which cited sources familiar with the company who were not authorized to speak publicly.

Members of that team also are dismayed and surprised that the DoJ is pushing the issue with Apple rather than using third-party tools to break into the iPhones, as it did in the Farook case, according to the report.

Publicly, Apple insisted it’s been as helpful as it can be short of unlocking the phones, despite remarks to the contrary by Attorney General Barr that the company “has not given us any substantive assistance.”

Apple said it responded “promptly” to legal requests from the FBI and “in response provided information including iCloud backups, account information and transactional data for multiple accounts,” the company said a statement emailed to Threatpost Tuesday.

“We are continuing to work with the FBI, and our engineering teams recently had a call to provide additional technical assistance,” according to the statement. “Apple has great respect for the Bureau’s work, and we will work tirelessly to help them investigate this tragic attack on our nation.”

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