Earlier this year, the FBI asked Apple to unlock two iPhone units belonging to Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, the man who shot and killed three people at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida last December. The request and Apple's refusal to unlock the devices brought back memories of early 2016 when a court ordered Apple to unlock the iPhone 5c belonging to terrorist Syed Farook; the latter gunned down 14 individuals in a San Bernardino office building in what was later called a terrorist attack.
CEO Tim Cook said he was concerned that Govt.OS (as the special software was dubbed) would fall into the wrong hands. That would threaten the security of every iPhone on the planet. Eventually, the FBI had to pay a third party company, believed to be Cellebrite, to unlock the phone.Apple ignored the court order and noted that a special version of iOS would be needed to open the phone.
Apple accuses Barr of trying to pressure Congress into passing laws to weaken encryption
Apple's refusal to unlock Alshamrani's two iPhones irritated Attorney General William Barr. The country's top law enforcement official made a point of noting at a press conference in January that the alleged terrorist purposely fired a round into one of the iPhone units during a shootout with the cops. The other phone was also damaged in the melee. During his chat with the press, Barr said, "We have asked Apple for their help in unlocking the shooter’s iPhones. So far Apple has not given us any substantive assistance. This situation perfectly illustrates why investigators must be able to get access to digital evidence once they have obtained a court order based on probable cause. We call on Apple and other technology companies to help us find a solution so that we can better protect the lives of Americans and prevent future attacks."
The Department of Justice today announced that it found evidence that Alshamrani had connections to Al Qaeda. Anonymous sources said that information linking Alshamrani with the terrorist organization was discovered after one of his iPhones was unlocked. FBI Director Christopher Wray said that his agency had "effectively no help from Apple," but did not say how it cracked open the devices. "Finally getting our hands on the evidence Alshamrani tried to keep from us is great," Mr. Wray said. "But we really needed it months ago, back in December, when the court issued its warrants."
Attorney General Barr said at a press conference today, "Thanks to the great work of the FBI – and no thanks to Apple – we were able to unlock Alshamrani’s phones. 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. However, if not for our FBI’s ingenuity, some luck, and hours upon hours of time and resources, this information would have remained undiscovered. The bottom line: our national security cannot remain in the hands of big corporations who put dollars over lawful access and public safety. The time has come for a legislative solution."
Apple responded by practically accusing Barr of lying about Apple's response in order to pressure Congress to weaken the encryption enjoyed by many American consumers. Apple said that it immediately responded after the shooting by giving the FBI access to Alshamrani’s iCloud accounts and helped out in other ways as well. The company said, "The false claims made about our company are an excuse to weaken encryption and other security measures that protect millions of users and our national security."
The Justice Department says that Alshamrani's Al Qaeda associates communicated with him using apps with end-to-end encryption that were protected from being unencrypted by using a warrant. The DOJ says that this was done on purpose to avoid law enforcement. The terrorist had been radicalized by 2015 according to the Justice Department and was in touch with his Al Qaeda associates right up to the December 6th, 2019 attack.