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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Filed Under: doj, encryption, fbi, going dark, iphones, terrorism, william barr
Companies: apple


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  1. icon
    Uriel-238 (profile), 15 Jan 2020 @ 6:16pm

    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).

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