Apple is reportedly preparing for a legal showdown with the Trump administration over the federal government’s request for access to the iPhones used by the Saudi terrorist who shot and killed three U.S. sailors in Pensacola, Florida, in December.
The brewing dispute highlights the debate surrounding digital privacy and the government, specifically when Silicon Valley companies like Apple are required to cooperate with law enforcement officials on criminal investigations and matters of national security.
On Tuesday President Donald Trump tweeted his frustration with Apple, telling the company that it needs to “step up to the plate and help our great Country.”
Earlier this week, Apple declined requests from Attorney General William Barr and the FBI to unlock two iPhones that are believed to have belonged to the terrorist who murdered three sailors and injured eight others at a Pensacola, Florida, Naval Air Station base.
The FBI has identified the shooter as Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, a 21-year-old Saudi citizen serving as a second lieutenant in the Royal Saudi Air Force. Alshamrani, who was killed in the incident, was reportedly in Pensacola for aviation training.
President Trump tweeted Tuesday that his administration is helping Apple with trade and many other issues, but said the company has not returned the favor and is refusing to cooperate with law enforcement.
We are helping Apple all of the time on TRADE and so many other issues, and yet they refuse to unlock phones used by killers, drug dealers and other violent criminal elements. They will have to step up to the plate and help our great Country, NOW! MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 14, 2020
Attorney General Barr also called on Apple to assist with the investigation.
“We have asked Apple for their help in unlocking the shooter’s iPhones. So far Apple has not given us any substantive assistance,” Barr said in a press conference on Monday.
“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. 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.”
Apple has sent mixed signals about its willingness to participate in the investigation, according to a new report from the New York Times.
The company had no comment about the matter on Tuesday following President Trump’s tweet. But earlier in the week, the company rejected Barr’s comments, telling the newspaper that “encryption is vital to protecting our country and our users’ data.”
At the same time, Apple told the Times that it is working with the FBI on the case. “We will work tirelessly to help them investigate this tragic attack on our nation.”
Apple CEO Tim Cook has taken a hardline stance on digital privacy, claiming that privacy is one the company’s core values. Cook previously squared off with law enforcement in 2016 over access to the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone. In that case, Apple fought the government until a third-party company provided a solution to break into the shooter’s device.
The Times reported that Cook has assembled a team of advisers to help him navigate the Pensacola case.
In a separate report, The Wall Street Journal noted Tuesday that law enforcement officials now have more third-party hacking tools at their disposal to unlock iPhones without the cooperation of Apple.
The report noted that the government spent $1 million to hack to the San Bernardino killer’s iPhone. Today, the government could likely accomplish something similar for around $15,000 thanks to advances in hacking technology, according to the report.