President Trump is kicking up a feud with Apple over its refusal to grant a government request to unlock the iPhone of a suspected shooter, and his Administration's ask may have a wider significance than just this single case.
On Wednesday, Trump went after Apple on Twitter for declining to provide law enforcement "backdoor" access to the iPhone of Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, who is suspected of fatally shooting three people and wounding several others at Pensacola Naval Air Station last month. Along with Trump, Attorney General Bill Barr demanded that Apple unlock the phone in a statement on Monday.
On Monday night, Apple said that it had “produced a wide variety of information associated with the investigation,” including iCloud backups, account information and transactional data for multiple accounts. But it also reiterated its policy against building "back door" software granting law enforcement access to Apple devices.
In a tweet, Trump said that Apple should unlock the phone because "we are helping Apple all of the time" on trade issues.
Throughout 2019, Apple’s relationship with Trump fell under the microscope, with Apple caught between U.S. and Chinese amid an ongoing trade war. Apple CEO Tim Cook met personally with Trump on several occasions in a largely successful effort to sway the White House away from tariffs that would have impacted Apple products.
Apple’s showdown with the FBI is the latest instance of the iPhone giant bucking up against law enforcement over a request to provide access to a locked iPhone.
In 2016, Apple similarly denied a law enforcement request that the company build software to unlock the phone of Syed Farook, who perpetrated a mass shooting in San Bernardino that killed 14 people. The Department of Justice sued Apple for refusing the request, but pulled the lawsuit after it identified a third party contractor that helped to unlock the phone.
According to Chris Howell, co-founder and CTO of Wickr, an encrypted messaging app that co-signed a brief supporting Apple in the San Bernardino case, it isn’t as simple as finding a third party that can unlock the phone. Howell likened it to an “arms race” in which Apple continually updates its software with improved security features, evading law enforcement or third parties with the means to unlock phones.
“These are all things that are on the bleeding edge,” Howell said, also pointing out that the latest and greatest in phone cracking software may be expensive to obtain, and may not turn up the desired information.
“It may be that [Trump and law enforcement] are deciding to bring this issue to bear and beat the drums to get politicians involved," Howell added.