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DoJ Again Asks for Encryption Backdoors After Hacking US Naval Base Shooter's iPhones

The U.S. Department of Justice announced on Monday that the FBI managed to gain access to the data stored on two iPhones belonging to an individual who last year killed and wounded several people at a United States naval base.

On December 6, 2019, Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani launched a terrorist attack on the Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida, killing three people and injuring eight others. The shooter was a member of the Royal Saudi Air Force and he had been taking part in a training program sponsored by the Pentagon.

Alshamrani was killed during the attack and he attempted to destroy his iPhones before being shot. The FBI asked Apple for help in accessing the locked devices in an effort to find out more about the attacker’s activities and associations prior to the incident.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray announced on Monday that the FBI managed to access the data stored on the two locked iPhones.

“The phones contained important, previously-unknown information that definitively established Alshamrani’s significant ties to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), not only before the attack, but before he even arrived in the United States. The FBI now has a clearer understanding of Alshamrani’s associations and activities in the years, months, and days leading up to the attack,” the DoJ said.

AG Barr took the opportunity to highlight that Apple was asked for assistance in accessing the information on the two iPhones, but “the company declined to do so.”

“Thanks to the great work of the FBI – and no thanks to Apple – we were able to unlock Alshamrani’s phones,” Barr stated. “The trove of information found on these phones has proven to be invaluable to this ongoing investigation and critical to the security of the American people. However, if not for our FBI’s ingenuity, some luck, and hours upon hours of time and resources, this information would have remained undiscovered. The bottom line: our national security cannot remain in the hands of big corporations who put dollars over lawful access and public safety. The time has come for a legislative solution.”

Apple has denied refusing to assist the FBI and says the government’s false claims are an “excuse to weaken encryption and other security measures.”

“It is because we take our responsibility to national security so seriously that we do not believe in the creation of a backdoor — one which will make every device vulnerable to bad actors who threaten our national security and the data security of our customers,” Apple stated. “There is no such thing as a backdoor just for the good guys, and the American people do not have to choose between weakening encryption and effective investigations.”

Apple claimed it did give authorities access to Alshamrani’s iCloud backups. However, the encryption and security mechanisms present on iPhones make it difficult to recover data from a locked device.

The FBI has been known to rely on the services of third-parties specializing in mobile forensics. One such company is Israel-based Cellebrite, which is believed to have helped the FBI hack locked phones in the past. According to some reports, the company helped the FBI access the iPhone of Syed Rizwan Farook, the terrorist behind the 2015 San Bernardino attack.

Authorities have been trying to convince tech companies — and in some cases force them through proposed legislation — to implement encryption backdoors that would make it easier to investigate crimes. However, security and privacy experts argue that such backdoors could be abused, including by the cybercriminals they are meant to protect users against.

Related: Inside GCHQ's Proposed Backdoor Into End-to-End Encryption

Related: The Argument Against a Mobile Device Backdoor for Government

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Eduard Kovacs (@EduardKovacs) is a contributing editor at SecurityWeek. He worked as a high school IT teacher for two years before starting a career in journalism as Softpedia’s security news reporter. Eduard holds a bachelor’s degree in industrial informatics and a master’s degree in computer techniques applied in electrical engineering.