FBI did not take Apple’s help to open Texas shooter’s iPhone during critical first 48 hours, reports say

Apple and the FBI are at odds once again, days after an Air Force veteran, Devin Kelley, shot and killed 26 people in a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

As the FBI struggled to access Kelley’s phone, which reports have said is an iPhone, the FBI did not ask Apple for assistance in the first 48 hours after the shooting, according to Reuters. The timing may prove crucial if Kelley owned an iPhone with an enabled Touch ID; the sensors recognize the owners’ fingerprints — dead or alive — if it was used within 48 hours of the last log-in.

Once the 48 hours pass, the iPhone can only be accessed with a passcode. It is unclear what iPhone model Kelley had and whether he had Touch ID enabled.

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Apple issued a statement to BuzzFeed News on Wednesday that it had offered assistance to the FBI on Tuesday.

“Our team immediately reached out to the FBI after learning from their press conference on Tuesday that investigators were trying to access a mobile phone,” said Apple. “We offered assistance and said we would expedite our response to any legal process they send us.”

Apple’s statements about reaching out to the FBI to offer assistance and the subsequent rebuff matched with earlier reporting from the Washington Post.

At a press conference on Tuesday, FBI’s Special Agent in Charge Chris Combs said that Kelley’s phone could not be broken into and that it has been flown to FBI’s headquarters in Quantico, Virginia. Combs drew a connection between Kelley’s phone and other past examples, but he didn’t identify the type of smartphone Kelley owned.

“It highlights an issue that you’ve all heard about before, with the advance of the technology and the phones and the encryptions; law enforcement, whether that’s at the state, local or federal level, is increasingly not able to get into these phones,” said Combs.

The friction between these two powerful American institutions may lead to another escalation between over the issue of encryption in smartphones.

In early 2016, the FBI and Apple had an acrimonious and public feud over accessing the iPhone of the San Bernardino shooter, Rizwan Farook. Apple’s unwillingness to help the FBI open that iPhone — fearing that it could compromise other iPhones’ security — was building to become a major courtroom fight, until the FBI was able to crack the iPhone with a third-party tool in March.

There may still be one avenue open for Apple to assist the FBI. With a court order or warrant, Apple can hand over to law enforcement iCloud data and its access keys. If an iPhone user backs up an iPhone using iCloud, the online data can contain texts, photographs and other information from the phone.

Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether it can hand over iCloud data to law enforcement and whether such a warrant or court order has been issued.

Photo: In this file photo, Apple CEO Tim Cook talks about smartphone privacy issues related to the company’s conflict with the FBI at the start of a product launch event Monday morning, March 21, 2016, at Apple headquarters in Cupertino, Calif. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)


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  • Brett

    Hope they don’t ask for it now and then do what they did with the San Bernardino case and use it as a ploy to be able to break into everybody’s phone.