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Apple Declines DOJ Request To Unlock Pensacola Gunman's Phones


The FBI wants Apple to unlock iPhones that belonged to the shooter at a naval base in Pensacola, Fla., last month. Apple is resisting this. And now the attorney general is complaining that Apple is not doing enough to help law enforcement in its investigation. This is just the latest in an ongoing fight between the U.S. government and tech companies over how to balance privacy with public safety.

We have NPR's technology correspondent Shannon Bond with us. Hi, Shannon.


GREENE: What exactly is the government asking Apple to do here?

BOND: Well, the FBI has two iPhones that belonged to the gunman in Pensacola, who was a Saudi air force cadet. And law enforcement has a court order to see who he was communicating with before the attack. But the phones are locked, and their contents are encrypted. So the government's asking Apple for help. But Apple has said for a long time, it won't unlock devices and break encryption. And that's frustrated the attorney general. Here's what William Barr said on Monday.


WILLIAM BARR: So far, Apple has not given any substantive assistance. This situation perfectly illustrates why it is critical that the public be able to get access to digital evidence once it has obtained a court order based on probable cause.

GREENE: So what exactly is Apple's argument for not helping here?

BOND: Well, Apple, first of all, is rejecting Barr's characterization. In a statement it put out on Monday, it said it's already turned over gigabytes of information to the government - things like iCloud backups and transactional data.

GREENE: Oh, so they're saying they are helping (laughter).

BOND: Right. But the FBI wants the communications on the phones. And Apple says to do that would require building a backdoor that would compromise the security of all iPhones.

I spoke with Susan Landau, a professor of cybersecurity and policy at Tufts. And she says that kind of backdoor would make it easier for criminals to access personal, financial and health information.

SUSAN LANDAU: The risks are that it becomes easier to open anybody else's phone. The whole reason Apple went to the model of making the data on the phone more secure is that hackers were taking data off the phone and then using it for identity theft.

BOND: And that's pretty much what Apple said on Monday. It said, quote, "there's no such thing as a backdoor just for the good guys."

GREENE: This, I have to say, sounds familiar. I mean, aren't these the very issues that came up back in 2015 after that terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Calif.?

BOND: That's right. That was - this is pretty much a very similar conflict in play. In the San Bernardino case, the people might remember, the government actually sued Apple to force it to unlock the phone. Apple resisted, and there was a really tense standoff with the Obama administration. But the government wound up working with a third-party contractor to get into the phone.

And since then, Apple has reportedly improved encryption and software to make its devices even more secure and harder to get into to now than they used to be then.

GREENE: So how do these larger questions get resolved, if they do?

BOND: Well, right. So first of all, experts say that, really, we need Congress to weigh in on the law. I spoke with Jim Baker. He was general counsel at the FBI during the San Bernardino case. And he says there's no easy solution to balance these questions.

JIM BAKER: So what you have then is a situation where the country, through its elected representatives in Congress, needs to make a choice. Does it want to give law enforcement more access and create more cybersecurity risk, or does it want to do something different?

BOND: The other place this could end up is back in court. And if the government gets a court order, then the question becomes, will Apple comply with it?

GREENE: That's NPR's Shannon Bond, who covers technology for us. Thanks so much, Shannon.

BOND: Thanks, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF KIASMOS' "LIT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.