FBI vs. Apple Part II? Texas gunman’s iPhone reignites encryption debate

The once-fiery debate between Apple and the FBI over iPhone encryption may soon be reignited, as FBI authorities have had trouble accessing the iPhone of the Texas gunman who killed 26 in a church on Sunday.

On Tuesday, the FBI said it could not access the smartphone of Devin Kelley, the Air Force veteran who murdered congregants at the First Baptist Church on Nov. 5 in Sutherland Springs, Texas. The phone turned out to be an iPhone, according to the Washington Post.

Word that Kelley’s locked phone is an iPhone may set the stage for another FBI vs. Apple confrontation. In early 2016, the two butted heads over access to the phone of the San Bernardino shooter Rizwan Farook, who killed 14 people. Apple did not want to concede to government demands to unlock the phone and possibly give law enforcement the ability to crack into iPhones at will.

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The public feud prompted politicians, tech CEOs and other prominent figures to take sides. Apple and the FBI were heading for trial until last March, when the Justice Department announced that the shooter’s iPhone was unlocked without Apple’s help and the case was dismissed.

“From the beginning, we objected to the FBI’s demand that Apple build a backdoor into the iPhone because we believed it was wrong and would set a dangerous precedent,” Apple wrote after the dismissal. “As a result of the government’s dismissal, neither of these occurred. This case should never have been brought.”

During its press conference on Tuesday, an FBI spokesperson did not disclose what type of phone it was, but said the phone was flown to its headquarters in Virginia to be cracked.

“With the advance of technology, and the phones, and the encryption, law enforcement at the state, local or federal level is increasingly unable to get into phones,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge Chris Combs. “I’m not going to say what kind of phone it is, I’m not going to tell every bad guy what phone to buy to harass our efforts to try to find justice here.”

Apple reached out to the FBI to see if it needed assistance on Tuesday and soon heard back that the phone is indeed an iPhone, according to the Washington Post. But the FBI did not ask the Cupertino tech giant for help, as it is trying other methods to crack the phone, such as through its backups. The process may take weeks.

Christopher Wray, the new FBI director, has repeatedly commented on the rise of encryption in smartphones and how that creates headaches for his agents. From October 2016 to this September, Wray said more than 7,000 digital devices were unable to be cracked. 

“To put it mildly, this is a huge, huge problem,” Wray said at the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference in Philadelphia. “There’s a balance that needs to be struck between encryption and the importance of giving us the tools we need to keep the public safe.”

Photo: Protester Victoria Bernal shows off her phone with the message “BACKDOORS ENDANGER EVERYONE” outside of the Apple store in downtown Palo Alto, Calif., on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016. Protesters don’t want Apple to give in to a court order issued commanding Apple to provide federal investigators with ‘backdoor’ software for an iPhone. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)


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  • likethesky

    In related news, the FBI wants all match & lighter manufacturers to install “recovery modes” into all matchbooks, lighters, and any other manufacturer of implements that create fire, so that notebooks kept by terrorists can be reconstructed after burning. Same for shredding machines. Don’t shedders which are ubiquitous nowadays make the FBI’s job much harder now? Oh noes!! /s

    How ridiculous! Learn to do old fashioned police work and quit looking for the easy way out! Properly constructed (read: safe and private) phones are now impenetrable. FBI: Get over it and find other ways to get what you need.