Trump has just tweeted a tweet that could escalate a sticky situation in an outright confrontation between Apple and the US Department of Justice – by effectively claiming that Apple refuses to do its patriotic duty to unlock two iPhones connected to the shooting of last month on a naval base in Pensacola, Florida.
here is the tweet:
We help Apple with TRADE and so many other issues all the time, yet they refuse to unlock phones used by killers, drug dealers, and other violent criminal elements. They will have to step on the board and help our great country NOW! MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.
– Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 14, 2020
Yesterday, Attorney General William Barr accused Apple of practically the same thing and said the technology company had not offered the FBI any “substantive help” in unlocking the shooter’s phones. But it is much more nuanced than that.
To begin with, Apple claims that has has constantly assisted the FBI with the Pensacola phones by backing up data from the phones to iCloud servers and account information, as we reported yesterday. Apple says it has transferred gigabytes of data to researchers and responded to every request within hours. Apple also suggested that the FBI seemed to be satisfied eight days ago and said, “The FBI did not inform us until January 6 that they needed extra help – a month after the attack.”
But it is also not easy to simply “unlock” an iPhone for the FBI – even if Apple has refused this in this case, which is not yet clear. We learned this in 2016 when Apple actually publicly refused to unlock an iPhone that was being used by one of the San Bernadino shooters, leading to a lengthy legal battle that ended shamefully for the federal government when the FBI did not need Apple’s help after all – partly because it paid a third party for a tool to break into that iPhone, and partly because researchers could find the password themselves.
I stray: what Apple claimed in 2016 was that it wasn’t actually have the existing ability to unlock a customer’s iPhone for the FBI, even if they were an alleged murderer, and that Apple was unwilling to build a back door in every iPhone just to make that happen – because it might be a can create dangerous loopholes that hackers can also take advantage of.
That said, a survey at the time suggested that most Americans believed that Apple should meet FBI requirements, although a majority understood that it could make their personal information less secure. Those are the sympathies that Trump is now trying to exploit.
According to The New York Times, Apple is quietly preparing for a brand new legal battle over the iPhone’s coding standards and the government’s desire for a back door, but is also internally frustrated that the Ministry of Justice has not spent more time unlocking third-party tools. According to security experts who work with both the NYT and with Bloomberg, tools for unlocking third-party mobile phones may also break into Pensacola phones.
Apple is perhaps even more at stake now than in 2016: Apple has increasingly positioned itself as a “privacy company,” as if it were the only technology company you could trust. You may have seen the advertisements. And although Apple has stumbled over privacy a few times, that is the image it wants to send.
It is true that Apple has also benefited from a relationship with Trump, but not necessarily around the trade – unless Trump says that Apple is why his proposed rates on phones and laptops are always being delayed.
Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Trump’s tweet.