AG Barr seeks 'legislative solution' to make companies unlock phones

The FBI was able to crack the iPhones of the Pensacola shooter without Apple's help.

Drew Angerer via Getty Images

Last December, a Saudi Arabian cadet training with the US military opened fire at Naval Air Station Pensacola, killing three soldiers and wounding eight others. The FBI recovered two iPhones, and after failing to access their data, asked Apple to unlock them. The company refused, but eventually the FBI unlocked at least one of them without Apple’s help, and discovered substantial ties between the shooter and terrorist group al Qaeda. US Attorney General Barr suggests forcing Apple to take action in the future, saying “...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.”

It’s not clear if the shooting was an order from al Qaeda, but the data shows that the shooter was in touch for an extended period of time with the organization, including its leadership. During the attack, he shot both phones in an attempt to destroy them, and he had been using apps with end-to-end encryption in order to communicate with the terrorist group. The FBI was able to access the data regardless, though Attorney General Barr and FBI Director Chris Wray suggest that results would have come much quicker if Apple had helped to unlock the phones.

ACLU Senior Staff Attorney Brett Max Kaufman responded to Barr’s comments, saying "Every time there’s a traumatic event requiring investigation into digital devices, the Justice Department loudly claims that it needs backdoors to encryption, and then quietly announces it actually found a way to access information without threatening the security and privacy of the entire world. The boy who cried wolf has nothing on the agency that cried encryption." While Barr’s push for backdoors and cooperation from phone manufacturers raises concerns, Kaufman’s response doesn’t address that the DoJ isn’t seeking the ability to unlock phones, but to do so as quickly as possible.

Apple’s refusal to work with law enforcement has been an issue for years. The company wants to ensure its users feel confident in trusting Apple with their data, yet police and the FBI say that the refusals to cooperate hinder investigations and put lives at risk. It sounds like Barr wants to put a system into law that would oblige Apple to comply in future cases. How realistic this plan is -- or how much buy-in from politicians it will get -- remains to be seen, though it would force Apple to rethink how it approaches user privacy.