Attorney General William Barr Says Apple Isn't Doing Enough To Let The DOJ Check Out A Dead Man's Phones

from the give-it-a-rest,-Bill dept

The DOJ has asked somewhat politely for Apple to break the encryption on some iPhones. Last time, the request wasn’t so polite. It involved a legal battle that only ended when a third-party cracked the San Bernardino’s iPhone for the FBI. Nothing of interest was recovered from that phone.

Another shooting and another dead shooter has brought Apple and the DOJ together again. The DOJ’s counsel sent a letter to Apple asking it to break into two phones recovered from the shooter. Apple stated it had already given the DOJ all the information it could recover without actually cracking the devices. This isn’t good enough for the DOJ, which believes the possession of a warrant should trump any concerns about creating encryption backdoors.

There’s been no demand made in court… yet. But Attorney General Bill Barr — whose antipathy towards encryption has been stated multiple times — is trying to apply a little more extrajudicial pressure.

Attorney General William P. Barr declared on Monday that a deadly shooting last month at a naval air station in Pensacola, Fla., was an act of terrorism, and he asked Apple in an unusually high-profile request to provide access to two phones used by the gunman.

[…]

“This situation perfectly illustrates why it is critical that the public be able to get access to digital evidence,” Mr. Barr said, calling on technology companies to find a solution and complaining that Apple had provided no “substantive assistance.”

It actually illustrates nothing of the sort. “Substantive evidence” is unlikely to be found on the shooter’s phones. While the DOJ has pointed to evidence the shooter was “radicalized” on social media, it can only speculate about what evidence can be recovered from the phones, one of which partially destroyed by a deputy’s bullet during the shootout with the gunman.

The DOJ’s assertions undercut Bill Barr’s claims that Apple has provided “no substantive assistance.” Barr said that the evidence the DOJ already has shows the “shooter was motivated by jihadist ideology.” This is based on social media messages and other content recovered by the DOJ, some of it likely from Apple itself.

There’s not much of a case to be built against a dead man. And there’s probably some value in mining contacts and text messages, but it’s dubious to claim the evidence that might reside on the locked devices will be a game changer for the FBI or result in new leads that could prevent future shootings.

Nevertheless, the Attorney General insists Apple is preventing law enforcement from doing its job. According to Barr, a warrant is all anyone should need to see to start cracking open cellphones for the FBI.

Mr. Barr indicated that he is ready for a sharp fight. “We don’t want to get into a world where we have to spend months and even years exhausting efforts when lives are in the balance,” he said. “We should be able to get in when we have a warrant that establishes that criminal activity is underway.”

This is the leverage. Any tragedy with an iPhone in the mix is fodder for the DOJ’s anti-encryption efforts. Third-party services can help the FBI achieve what Barr says it wants to achieve: speedy recovery of evidence from locked devices. But Barr and the agencies he represents only want outside help from the courts — precedent that will make all cellphone users less safe in the name of securing the nation.

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Comments on “Attorney General William Barr Says Apple Isn't Doing Enough To Let The DOJ Check Out A Dead Man's Phones”

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39 Comments
Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

"I don’t see how Bars current actions are convincingly aimed at holding any living person accountable."

That’s one of the more amusing details in the song-and-dance act Barr presents in his shit-show.

I wonder when someone’s going to realize and say, in public, that what Barr is saying is essentially that no one is allowed a door lock to which the police don’t have a key.

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Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

"…Looks likes someone let hamilton out of the mental health facility."

He was on Torrentfreak as well, back then. I still claim "Hamilton" is just what happens when "Baghdad Bob" (aka Jhon/Blue/Bobmail/Herrick/Etc) finally has a little episode and goes off on a hysterical rant of hatred and invective in an off-key veneration of "Mein Kampf".

It happens regularly every time the forum community has treated his "sensible" writings with all the due respect they deserve for some time.

This comment has been deemed funny by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Nevertheless, the Attorney General insists Apple is preventing law enforcement from doing its job.

So the bigliest, bestiest, most goodest country in the whole wide world, with its vast arsenal of nukeular weapons, deep state technology, and a spray-tanned stable genius is powerless against the makers of the iphone.

Maybe it’s another project we should give to Jared Kushner, perhaps? He’s solved everything else.

Anonymous Coward says:

as far as all security forces in the USA, there should be NO PRIVACY, NO FREEDOM, NO CONSTITUTION, ABSOLUTELY NOTHING THAT PROTECTS THE PEOPLE! have those in lofty positions of government forgotten so quickly, so easily, why the USA became a country separated from the then England rule? have they forgotten what happened that brought about World War II? have they forgotten the conflict that still rages today and the main reasons why? surely, with the weapons available today, they cant want another world war, can they? we would destroy ourselves completely and that is happening fast enough as it is due to the greed of men and businesses fueling climate change!

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Barr's motivations

The shooter is dead, they have reviewed his social media accounts, they have questioned his compatriots. Unless he is trying to uncover some conspiracy that he has no actual evidence of so far, what more does he want in terms of evidence, and to what end? Since he has no current evidence of a conspiracy, how did he get a warrant when he could not specify what he was looking for on the phones?

The short answer to the above questions is that he is not concerned with evidence, this is just another excuse to get backdoors into encrypted devices which in turn would give the surveillance state more power over its minions. MAGA redefined as Make Authoritarianism Great Again.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Barr's motivations

He just wants the phone so he can hide the fact that he was calling it… for providing ‘business opportunities’ to disadvantaged individuals willing to sell their soul for the promise of a better future for their children…

always think of the children… when you are staging terror plots (and don’t forget to collect the phone that has your contact info on it… don’t be like Barr and have to chase it down).

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
That One Guy (profile) says:

Better the current world than yours

Mr. Barr indicated that he is ready for a sharp fight. “We don’t want to get into a world where we have to spend months and even years exhausting efforts when lives are in the balance,” he said.

First of all, in neither case the DOJ has attempted to use to force companies to break their own encryption were ‘lives in the balance’, so this is just gross(in both uses of the word) fearmongering. It’s also beyond rich to make the ‘lives could be on the line’ excuse after it was found that the DOJ deliberately avoided a quicker solution the last time they tried the stunt, something which nicely destroys the ‘we need access and we need it now’ excuse.

That said, you know what kind of world I and many, many others would much prefer over the hypothetical he’s spinning? The one we’re currently in, where all encryption offered by major companies isn’t broken by law with known security holes that can and will be found and exploited by countless criminals and state actors. There are story after story of the damage caused by encryption being broken and bypassed already, to say that things would be exponentially worse should security holes not just be expected due to imperfect coding but required would be a serious understatement.

Anonymous Coward says:

I see one of three possibilities.

  1. This is security theater in which the DOJ already has access to the phone via other means but pretends not to in order to create a false impression.

  2. Apple complies with the warrants and the false impression that apple doesn’t comply with the warrants is put in the media.

  3. There is an incompetence issue inside the federal government that prevents it from gaining access to devices other entities, especially foreign entities, have access to.
That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

They’ve already gone through this song and dance before, and it’s close to #1 though slightly different, wherein the phone is merely being used as a prop, something to be used in an attempt to get a legal precedent that will allow them to require companies using encryption only use encryption that they can break and be required to break it on demand.

Anon says:

Already

they deported 21 other Saudi students already. This implies to me they determined who the shooter was in contact with (and radicalized by) and determined a number of other Saudi’s likely in the same boat. How much more do they need? What’s the urgency except the fact that "this is a way to make Apple give in or else appear to support terrorism." Thin edge of the wedge an all that.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Already

"they deported 21 other Saudi students already. This implies to me they determined who the shooter was in contact with (and radicalized by) and determined a number of other Saudi’s likely in the same boat."

Oh, if only Barr had been around when the FBI had certain knowledge that known saudi extremists were learning how to pilot airliners in american schools and planning a hijacking.

Oh, wait. he was!

Barr doesn’t give two shits about actual criminals. He never has. All he cares about is that government power needs to be absolute.

cliff_badger (profile) says:

An honest question...

I have a simple honest question.

Why are these proceedings always against iPhones?

  • Does Google just hand over information?
  • Is Android easier to crack than iOS?
  • Do bad people only carry iPhones?

This all seems strange to me that every time this subject is debated, by anyone, it’s always how Apple isn’t providing enough support. It kind of scares me that Android is never mentioned in these things.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Khym Chanur (profile) says:

Re: An honest question...

This is just speculation:

When the DOJ does stuff like this it could either get a favorable precedent from a court ruling or the target could cave and put in a backdoor for law enforcement. For Android phones I’m assuming that they can’t go directly after Google but have to go after a particular Android producer.

1) Any given Android producer is probably significantly smaller than Apple and thus more likely to cave, preventing the DOJ from getting a precedent which can be used against all smartphone producers.

2) If a particular Android producer caves then people might dump that producer in favor of another one, or just root their device to undo the backdoor. But if Apple caves then iPhone users either have to jailbreak or switch from an iPhone to an Android. Not only is such a switch a much bigger pain than merely switching from one variant of Android to another, but lots of iPhone users are rather dedicated/loyal to iDevices and Apple.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Regarding android

Recent Android builds use the same kinds of crypto and defense methods as apple (AES encription using a 256+ byte code that’s stored in a TPM on board the device. TPMs are acceptably vulnerable in that one can crack them, but it’s tedious and expensive and involves a tunneling electron microscope.

Android builds, unlike iOS builds are released to the Android Open Source Project, where the code is scrutinized by the public, so when someone finds a security flaw, usually it’s news and it means a white hat gets to eat that week while Google closes the vulnerability with a security update. (My phone got one today.)

And if Google, or anyone outside the end user could crack open a phone using some back door intentionally installed, that would make news. The NSA tried to integrate a backdoor into elliptic curve crypto and set that as a global standard. There were grumbles in the news during development (e.g. we think the NSA is trying to facilitate espionage rather than prevent it.) So optimistically, Android devices are likely to be secure.

Of course, unlike the Apple Store which is a walled garden, it’s possible to install malware and spyware onto an Android device and requires all the security hygiene of webbrowsing on a Windows system.

For most stuff, thus, law enforcement likes to preinstall vulnerabilities in anticipation of sting operations. Without such a vulnerability, law enforcement would have to rely on:

  • The tunneling electron microscope method, above.
  • The five-dollar wrench method
  • Undiscovered vulnerabilities retained by the NSA or hacker friends of law enforcement (a short, ever-changing list).
Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: The other two questions:

  • Google, according to its public disclosures, has an extensive legal department that cooperates with law enforcement writs only if it has to. That is to say that Google promises its end-users to only hand over specific data requested (and no more) and not to honor warrants that are overly broad or were issued under dubious pretenses.

This is not to say Google never leaks. Sometimes companies and law enforcement that work with Google get techs who are more cooperative than they should be, and sometimes Google techs themselves will stalk people. When such incidents become public, it makes news and pops up on the TechDirt feed.

  • I think bad people carry iPhones the way they wear pants and eat twinkies. This is to say these things are just that ubiquitous.

Also the San Bernardino killer used an iPhone 5 which could be cracked by Apple, but doing so would expose all iPhone 5s to US law enforcement. iPhone 7s and later don’t have the same vulnerability.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: An honest question...

"It kind of scares me that Android is never mentioned in these things."

Android is open source, meaning that every phone OEM and every homebrew version a user might run on a rooted phone can be different and not subject to a simple software update issued by one corporate entity opening a backdoor in the phones of all users.

Barr going after Apple is primarily because Apple has a certain reputation of retaining power over their OS in a way Google has long relinquished to users.

That, and the fact that both of Barr’s hobbyhorse examples were iPhones has ensured Apple’s the one he’s going after today.

Bergman (profile) says:

Precedent

I doubt any government bureaucrat wants to set a precedent that a warrant or subpoena or other statutorily-mandatory production of information compels the recipient to spend exorbitant sums to invent a way to comply where no such method already exists.

But that seems to be exactly where AG Barr is heading. Bets on whether the precedent he wants to carve out somehow applies only to government orders, even though laws supposedly apply to everyone?

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