FBI Hacks Florida Shooter’s iPhones without Apple’s Help & Finds al Qaeda Link

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The FBI has finally managed to break into the iPhones owned by the shooter who was responsible for a terror attack on a military base in Pensacola, Florida, last year. After breaking into the phones, it has been discovered that the shooter had links to an al Qaeda operative. The FBI managed to break into the phones without Apple’s help.

Apple had been requested by the FBI for support in helping to unlock the iPhones, however, the company only helped in providing unencrypted iCloud data to the law enforcement agency. Apple had said at that time:

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“We have the greatest respect for law enforcement and have always worked cooperatively to help in their investigations," Apple said in a statement. "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.”

However, as is the nature of iCloud backups, they only contain data from the last backup, which could be much older than what an investigation might require. In some cases, it might be completely useless. Apple had drawn the line here to not create a backdoor for the FBI to get into the iPhones, as it would put all iPhones at a security risk.

CNN reported on the news regarding FBI’s breakthrough in unlocking the iPhones:

Investigators had initially been unable to retrieve data stored on two iPhones belonging to the shooter, and they cited that hurdle in trying to complete their investigation of the attacker's ideology and his radicalization. Justice Department and FBI officials said Apple had helped provide access to iCloud and other data from the shooter's devices, but that breaking the phones' encryption was key to retrieving more of Alshamrani's communications before the attack.

Attorney General Barr took this opportunity to take a shot at Apple that they were not helpful in unlocking the iPhones and hinted that it is time for a ‘legislative solution’. He said in a press release by the Department of Justice:

“Thanks to the great work of the FBI – and no thanks to Apple – we were able to unlock Alshamrani’s phones,” said Attorney General Barr.  “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.”

Even though Apple had provided iCloud data to the FBI upon request, Barr had claimed that Apple had not been helpful. Even President Donal Trump came out in support of Barr’s claims, and asked Apple to “step up to the plate”, unlock the phones and make America great again.

Apple had given a public statement in response to reject the allegations.

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We reject the characterization that Apple has not provided substantive assistance in the Pensacola investigation. Our responses to their many requests since the attack have been timely, thorough and are ongoing.

While the investigation was going on, news surfaces that the FBI had found success in unlocking iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro Max, Apple’s latest smartphones, through the use of tools like Graykey.

Even though Apple was not willing to create a backdoor, the FBI had later revealed that it was still engaged with the company to get into the iPhones.

The news that the shooter had links to al Qaeda exponentially raises the possibility of legislation to weaken device encryption and force companies to create backdoors, as per Barr’s statement.

Apple has shared a statement on these recent developments, with details on how it helped FBI during the investigation:

The terrorist attack on members of the US armed services at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida was a devastating and heinous act. Apple responded to the FBI’s first requests for information just hours after the attack on December 6, 2019 and continued to support law enforcement during their investigation. We provided every piece of information available to us, including iCloud backups, account information and transactional data for multiple accounts, and we lent continuous and ongoing technical and investigative support to FBI offices in Jacksonville, Pensacola and New York over the months since.

On this and many thousands of other cases, we continue to work around-the-clock with the FBI and other investigators who keep Americans safe and bring criminals to justice. As a proud American company, we consider supporting law enforcement’s important work our responsibility. 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.

It is because we take our responsibility to national security so seriously that we do not believe in the creation of a backdoor — one which will make every device vulnerable to bad actors who threaten our national security and the data security of our customers. There is no such thing as a backdoor just for the good guys, and the American people do not have to choose between weakening encryption and effective investigations.

Customers count on Apple to keep their information secure and one of the ways in which we do so is by using strong encryption across our devices and servers. We sell the same iPhone everywhere, we don’t store customers’ passcodes and we don’t have the capacity to unlock passcode-protected devices. In data centers, we deploy strong hardware and software security protections to keep information safe and to ensure there are no backdoors into our systems. All of these practices apply equally to our operations in every country in the world

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