The US attorney-general has called on Apple to help unlock two iPhones owned by a Saudi air officer who killed three Americans in a shooting on a US air force base in what he called an “act of terrorism”.
William Barr said Apple had not given the government “any substantive assistance” as federal investigators sought access to the devices to determine who Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani was talking to before the attack.
“We call on Apple and other technology companies to help us find a solution so that we can better protect the lives of Americans and prevent future attacks,” he said at a press conference in Washington.
The public appeal was the latest volley in a long-running battle between Apple and the federal government over the strong encryption the phonemaker uses in its products.
In 2016, the justice department sued Apple to force it to help unlock an iPhone belonging to a shooter involved in a terrorist attack in the Southern California city of San Bernardino. That case was eventually dropped after the government found a third-party vendor who could break into the device.
In a statement Monday evening, Apple rejected Mr Barr’s characterisation and said its responses had been “timely, thorough and are ongoing” adding that it will “work tirelessly to help them investigate this tragic attack on our nation”.
However, Apple stood firmly by its controversial 2016 decision not to help law enforcement hack into an iPhone. “We have always maintained there is no such thing as a backdoor just for the good guys,” the company said. “Backdoors can also be exploited by those who threaten our national security and the data security of our customers.
“Today, law enforcement has access to more data than ever before in history, so Americans do not have to choose between weakening encryption and solving investigations. We feel strongly encryption is vital to protecting our country and our users’ data.”
Mr Barr said the investigation into the December 6 shooting at Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida had so far found no evidence of “assistance or pre-knowledge” of the attack by any other Saudi military members training in the US.
Alshamrani had attempted to destroy the two iPhones, Mr Barr said, including by firing a bullet into one of them.
FBI specialists had successfully repaired the devices to make them operational again but had been unable to access their contents despite court authorisation. Last week the FBI’s general counsel, Dana Boente, wrote to Apple requesting assistance.
Mr Barr on Monday declined to say if the government was considering taking legal action against Apple again but suggested that the FBI had already exhausted all possible avenues in attempting to get into the phones. In 2018, Apple introduced a software update to close off the method used in the San Bernardino case.
A senior justice department official clarified that the FBI had been “working to exhaust all of its readily available options”, including with foreign governments and private sector companies, in the month since the shooting.
After the San Bernardino dispute, a report by the justice department’s inspector-general had suggested the bureau failed to “pursue all possible avenues” to unlock the phone.
David Bowdich, the deputy director of the FBI, said agents had not identified any co-conspirators or evidence that Alshamrani, who was killed in the attack, was “inspired by any one specific group”.
In the course of the probe, investigators discovered “derogatory material” possessed by 21 other members of the Saudi military training in the US, including “jihadi or anti-American content” and, for 15 of the members, contact with child sex abuse imagery.
All 21 were returning to Saudi Arabia later on Monday, said Mr Barr. “The kingdom has assured me that it will review each of these cases under their code of military justice and criminal code,” he added.