AWhen William Barr went public in Washington to comment on a firearm attack a week ago, the Attorney General linked his remarks with a more extensive request. The result of an investigation into the deadly attack by a Saudi Air Force officer at a military base in Pensacola, Florida, came as no surprise after all that had been revealed about the crime.
“It was an act of terrorism,” said Barr. The evidence showed that the perpetrator was motivated by jihadist ideology. Shortly before the crime on December 6, he published “anti-American, anti-Israeli and jihadist messages” on social media. The 21-year-old man, who killed three American soldiers and injured eight, was shot dead by security forces.
Barr: Apple no substantial help
Barr said there was no evidence to date that the perpetrator had supporters in the United States. Twenty-one other Saudi soldiers participating in training programs in the United States had been forced to leave the country because of allegations unrelated to the crime.
Then Barr came to his actual message: The FBI investigators had secured two iPhone-type cell phones. Within 24 hours, they had received judicial permission to examine both. The perpetrator deliberately shot into one of the telephones during the crime; the other was damaged. However, experts would have made the phones functional again. However, they are made in such a way that it is practically impossible to access the data without passwords.
Barr therefore attacked the manufacturer, the technology group Apple, sharply: “It is very important to know who and what the shooter communicated with before he died. We asked Apple for help to unlock the shooter’s iPhones. “So far, the manufacturer has provided” no substantial help “. The case shows why it is important that investigators have access to such data on the basis of a judicial decision. He asked Apple and other technology companies to help find solutions to better protect the lives of Americans.
An old argument, rekindled?
Barr’s push could herald a similarly bitter government-Apple clash as it had before, under former President Barack Obama in 2016. The Department of Justice then tried to force Apple to decrypt the iPhone for one of the people responsible for an attack in San Bernardino, California, in which 14 people were killed. The group refused.
There was a legal dispute in which both sides were determined to go to the highest levels. In the end, the government managed to crack the device without Apple’s help. In the current case, this has apparently not succeeded, possibly because the company has now worked on the security of its iPhones.
However, the fundamental question of whether companies can be forced to give the government access to their products remained unanswered. The debate over the tension between privacy and national security continued to smolder.
At the time, Apple argued that it would have to develop a kind of back door for its devices and, as it were, hack its own users to meet the demand. But if this technology does exist, there is no guarantee that it cannot be misused by authoritarian regimes or hackers. The company now said: “We always said there is no back door that can only be used by people with good intentions.”
Trump has not interfered yet
Apple also dismissed Barr’s criticism. “Many gigabytes” of data were supplied, for example information from the iCloud service and from several accounts of the perpetrator. This should be data that Apple can access on its computers and for which no decryption is necessary.
President Donald Trump has not yet interfered publicly in the dispute. However, in 2016, when he was not yet president, he had sided with the company and even called for boycotting its products. Most recently, he has cultivated a close relationship with Apple CEO Tim Cook and, for example, visited an Apple plant in Texas.