Apple Reaches Out To The FBI About Texas Shooter’s Phone

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Eric Lieberman Managing Editor
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Apple says it “immediately” reached out to the FBI after the agency held a press conference Tuesday detailing its struggle to access certain parts of the iPhone belonging to the gunman who killed 26 people in a Texas church.

The FBI said Tuesday that it has so far been unable to decrypt the mobile device and obtain key information. The inability to gain entry “actually highlights an issue that you’ve all heard before with the advance of the technology and the phone and the encryptions, law enforcement whether it’s at the state, local, or the federal level is increasingly not able to get into these phones,” Christopher Combs, an FBI special agent who heads the San Antonio division, said during the press conference.

It’s not clear if the FBI tried to reach out to Apple initially, or if the California-based tech company was aware that the shooter owned an iPhone that the law enforcement agency wanted unlocked. And this is a critical point, because timing could have been of the utmost importance; there is only a 48-hour window to unlock an iPhone equipped with Touch ID, a fingerprint recognition system. It is also not clear (at least yet) which model of the iPhone the gunman had, so it is unknown if it even had the biometric feature.

“Our team immediately reached out to the FBI after learning from their press conference on Tuesday that investigators were trying to access a mobile phone,” Apple said in a statement obtained by BuzzFeed. “We offered assistance and said we would expedite our response to any legal process they send us.”

After Combs made his public statements, an FBI official told The Washington Post that the Bureau was not at the moment requesting any help from Apple. Experts at the FBI’s lab in Quantico, Va. are working on finding other means to obtain the smartphone’s data, like a synced computer or cloud storage.

If that testimony from the official is true, then FBI’s apparent rebuff makes it less likely that there will be another battle between Apple and the federal agency.

Former FBI Director James Comey pressured Apple CEO Tim Cook roughly two years ago to help law enforcement officials gain access to the iPhone of Syed Rizwan Farook — one of the perpetrators in the San Bernardino mass shooting — but Cook declined.

Cook argued in a letter to customers that creating software for a back door is far “too dangerous to create,” and extremely counterproductive since it would inevitably allow bad actors access to people’s data.

“The FBI may use different words to describe this tool, but make no mistake: Building a version of iOS that bypasses security in this way would undeniably create a backdoor,” he wrote in February 2016, referencing how it ignores the basics of digital security. “And while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control.” (RELATED: Americans Split On If Police Should Be Able To Force You To Unlock Your Phones)

The FBI eventually gained entry into Farook’s smartphone without Apple’s help, which may be the case this time around. If not, then another debate over encryption — in which the perennial national security vs. privacy debate is also sparked — could transpire again like clockwork.

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