The New York Times reported that FBI General Counsel Dana Boente sent a letter to Apple asking the company to unlock the two encrypted iPhones of Second Lt. Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani of the Saudi Royal Air Force, who authorities believe shot three sailors at Naval Air Station Pensacola in December 2019.
This confrontation could turn into a new test case in which either Apple will have to unlock the devices or the FBI will have to retreat once again, as it did in two previous cases. In the San Bernardino case, the agency was forced to admit that it had other ways to unlock the devices, and the judge sided with Apple in a New York case.
The FBI has confirmed the existence of the new letter to Apple. The agency had checked internally and with other intelligence agencies to see if there was a way to unlock the device without Apple’s help, but the response came back negative, according to someone familiar with the investigation.
Apple’s previous argument against the FBI’s criticism was that it can give the FBI “all the data in its possession” (meaning any messages and files that were backed up to iCloud, or related services metadata, as those don’t use end-to-end encryption), but only the owner of the device can decrypt the local phone’s data. As Alshamrani is now dead, that most likely means that nobody will be able to unlock the data.
The FBI now claims it doesn’t want an encryption backdoor (at least for now), but instead simply wants Apple to open the devices for the agency, according to the NYT report. However, Apple has also said the only way to unlock a device’s data is to put all iOS devices at risk by creating a compromised version of its operating system.
The company recently renewed its pitch to protect user privacy to the best of its ability. The company has been working on end-to-end encrypted cloud backups for a couple of years now, too, but so far it has kept that technology unused. It’s not clear if that’s so it doesn’t draw more criticism from the U.S. or other governments.
Attorney General William P. Barr recently attacked Facebook’s efforts to switch Facebook and Instagram chat services to WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption, so Apple may want to avoid similar attacks for now. So far, Facebook has ignored the government's threats, and is said to be moving ahead with its encryption plans.