Attorney General asks Apple to unlock naval base shooter's iPhones

Attorney General William Barr has joined the FBI in asking Apple to unlock two iPhones belonging to the man who attacked a naval base in Pensacola, Florida, in December. Barr also declared the shooting "an act of terrorism."

Apple has given investigators details from Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani's iCloud account, but it rejected a plea from the FBI to unlock the phones. The company has claimed complying with such a request could set a precedent that may compel it to unlock a device whenever a federal agency asks it to.

The Justice Department wants access to Alshamrani's phones so it can view encrypted messages on apps such as WhatsApp and Signal. It's hoping to determine whether he was acting alone or if others knew of his plans. Barr noted that both phones were damaged in the attack, but said FBI crime lab experts were able to make them operational.

The attorney general claimed at a press conference Monday Apple "has not given us any substantive assistance" when it came to unlocking the devices. "This situation perfectly illustrates why it is critical that investigators be able to get access to digital evidence once they have obtained a court order based on probable cause," he said. "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."

Barr said investigators found that Alshamrani, a Saudi air force member who was training at the base, posted a message on September 11th saying "the countdown has begun." The gunman "posted other anti-American, anti-Israeli and jihadi messages on social media, and did so two hours before his attack," according to Barr. Alshamrani killed three and wounded eight others before responding officers shot him dead.

Barr has argued the government should have backdoor access to encrypted communications in the interest of public safety, and last month described that as one of his department's "highest priorities." However, Apple is said to be standing firm in its support of encryption, which could set it on a path towards another high-profile privacy battle with authorities.

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Were the government to be successful in its "dangerous and unconstitutional" demand, it would "weaken the security of millions of iPhones," according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

"Strong encryption enables religious minorities facing genocide, like the Uyghurs in China, and journalists investigating powerful drug cartels in Mexico, to communicate safely with each other, knowledgeable sources, and the outside world," ACLU Surveillance and Cybersecurity Counsel Jennifer Granick said in a statement. "There is simply no way for Apple, or any other company, to provide the FBI access to encrypted communications without also providing it to authoritarian foreign governments and weakening our defenses against criminals and hackers."

The government made similar requests following an attack in San Bernadino, California, in 2015. The FBI sued Apple in an attempt to unlock an iPhone belonging to one of the shooters, who police killed in a subsequent shootout. However, the bureau gained access to the device using a third-party tool and dropped the case.

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