Apple is refuting the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s account of the aftermath of the Texas gunman’s attack this past Sunday, saying it reached out to the bureau “immediately” to offer assistance in getting into the gunman’s iPhone and expedite its response to any legal process. The attack, which left 26 dead and many more injured, was committed by now-deceased Devin P. Kelley, who is confirmed to have been carrying an iPhone that may have crucial information about his activities in the lead up to the shooting.
The FBI originally cast blame on Apple yesterday without mentioning the company by name, with FBI special agent Christopher Combs blaming industry standard encryption from preventing law enforcement from accessing the contents of devices owned by mass shooters. “Law enforcement is increasingly not able to get into these phones,” Combs said at a press conference. “I can assure you that we are working very hard to get into the phone.”
However, a Reuters report earlier today revealed that the FBI did not ask Apple for assistance during a critical 48-hour window, in which Kelley’s fingerprint could have still unlocked an iPhone equipped with Touch ID. (The model of Kelley’s iPhone remains unknown, as does whether he enabled Touch ID.) An Apple spokesperson, in a statement obtained by BuzzFeed, now says it did in fact contact the FBI right away:
Apple’s statement on the phone used by the Texas church gunman is quite something pic.twitter.com/RVwk13tM6U
— John Paczkowski (@JohnPaczkowski) November 8, 2017
The Washington Post is reporting that an FBI official even acknowledged Apple’s offer of assistance late yesterday evening, but that it did not need the company’s assistance as experts in the bureau’s crime lab were determining whether there was another method of accessing the data.
In other words, the FBI appears to be playing fast and loose with the facts regarding the timeline here, in an apparent effort to drum up support for weakening tech industry encryption. Apple and the FBI engaged in a high-profile showdown last year over the iPhone 5C of San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook, with the FBI ultimately backing down from a court battle with Apple after it paid $1 million to a third-party company to help it bypass that specific device’s encryption. A federal court ruled in late September that the FBI did not have to disclose how much it paid for the exploit, the name of the vendor who supplied it, or any other information about how exactly it broke into Farook’s iPhone.
Still, it would seem as if the FBI would rather not have to go to such extreme measures to access the contents of an American citizen’s device, especially considering the fact that the exploit in the San Bernardino case likely doesn’t work on devices of all types. Although Apple legally complies with warrants for iCloud data, the FBI still has no definitive method for bypassing the encryption protecting iPhone authentication locks, which Apple purposefully makes near-impossible to bypass without the user’s access code.
In the case of Kelley, because 48 hours had passed without him using his fingerprint to unlock the iPhone in question, the access code security feature kicked in and locked the FBI out. Had law enforcement accepted Apple’s offer for assistance right away, perhaps they would already have what they’re looking for. But in that case, the FBI wouldn’t be able to blame encryption for its failure.