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Security experts weigh in as Apple pushes back on DOJ claims surrounding help unlocking iPhones

Updated: January 14, 2020 08:01 PM

The FBI asked Apple last week to help extract data from iPhones that belonged to the Saudi aviation student who investigators say fatally shot three sailors at a U.S. naval base in Florida last month.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr, on Monday, said the iPhones are engineered to make it virtually impossible to unlock without the password, and the company has not given “any substantive assistance.”

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Investigators have been trying to access the two devices — an iPhone 7 and an iPhone 5 that belonged to Mohammed Alshamrani, a 21-year-old 2nd Lt. in the Royal Saudi Air Force — but have been unable to access them because the phones are locked and encrypted, according to the letter from the FBI’s general counsel, Dana Boente.

Apple sent a statement to 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS that disputes the DOJ’s claims. 

“We responded to each request promptly, often within hours, sharing information with FBI offices in Jacksonville, Pensacola and New York,” an Apple spokesperson wrote to 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS. “The queries resulted in many gigabytes of information that we turned over to investigators. In every instance, we responded with all of the information that we had.”

Apple cautioned in their statement of developing a “backdoor” in their encryption software on phones for the “good guys” to use.

“Backdoors can also be exploited by those who threaten our national security and the data security of our customers,” Apple wrote.

Cracking Cell Phones?

"We have a lot of techniques that we can use," said Kyle Loven, national director at Computer Forensic Services in Minneapolis. "It depends on the nature of the devices and the security protocols in place."

Loven is a former FBI agent with more than two decades in law enforcement. His Minneapolis firm is now hired by companies that sometimes need computers or phones of employees under investigation cracked.  

“There's nothing that's 100 percent secure,” Loven said.

The DOJ used a third-party to help them crack a different iPhone in another terror case from 2016.

“Most phones you can break,” said Andrew Garrett, CEO of Garrett Discovery.“But it’s going to take time even with the best computers out there it’s going to take time.”

“The debate is not whether they can get into the phone, the debate is it’s not easy to do so,” Garrett said. “They want an easy-button and that’s the real reality.”

“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," Barr said.  “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.”

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Eric Chaloux

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