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Orlando Shooting Sets Up Another Potential Battle Between FBI, Tech Giant

(Photo: Myspace/Handout via REUTERS)

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Eric Lieberman Deputy Editor

Not much is yet known about Orlando nightclub shooter Omar Mateen and his tech tendencies, but according to certain selfies he posted, it seems as if he was in possession of a Google Android smartphone.

The FBI notified the public that they are in possession of Mateen’s cellular phone and other pertinent electronics, but have not confirmed the kind or brand. The FBI has not yet expressed if they are struggling to unlock the precious data on Mateen’s communicative devices.

It was only around three months ago that Apple and the Federal Bureau of Investigation fought a legal battle over the encrypted phone of the San Bernardino shooter, Syed Rizwan Farook. As investigations of Omar Mateen, the Orlando nightclub shooter, continue, authorities and law enforcement agencies are searching for any valuable intelligence. Just like with the San Bernardino shooter, Mateen’s complete digital footprint is valuable.

While smartphones today are often interconnected to several other electronic devices, the data critical for investigations could possibly be only accessible through Mateen’s phone. Tapping into an Android will naturally be different than an iPhone, but could be likewise protected by a passcode.

Google offered the encryption option in 2011, later implementing it by default in 2014, which is later than Apple. If Mateen had vital communications prior to 2014, and did not turn on the option after 2011, then the critical data could be right there for the taking. A Wall Street Journal report released in March indicated that less than “10% of the world’s 1.4 billion Android phones are encrypted,” compared with 95% of Apple’s iPhones.

Apple used the Worldwide Developers Conference this past Monday as an opportunity to double down on their firm stance on encryption, only one day after the Orlando nightclub shooting.

Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering, took the stage and used the event to address the conference-goers and reiterate the company’s overarching, long-held policy on data security. “In every feature that we do, we carefully consider how to protect your privacy,” Federighi explained. In other words, “to use end-to-end encryption by default.”

If Mateen had an encrypted phone, it seems improbable that Google is able, or at least willing, to decrypt the mobile phone.

Lead engineer for Android security at Google, Adrian Ludwig, used his own company’s online platform last November to assert what Apple has been saying. “Google has no ability to facilitate unlocking any device that has been protected with a PIN, Password, or fingerprint. This is the case whether or not the device is encrypted, and for all versions of Android. Google also does not have any mechanism to facilitate access to devices that have been encrypted (whether encrypted by the user…or encrypted by default).”

Like Apple, Google has been adamant that while they cooperate with law enforcement’s legal inquiries, they heavily examine all requests for personal information. The tech conglomerate has a continuously updated and published “Transparency Report” that details all such requests.

This echoed situation may pit the FBI vs. another tech giant: Google.

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