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Barr and Wray Slam Apple, Say Company Refused to Unlock Pensacola Shooter’s iPhone

United States Attorney General William Barr and Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray picked a fight with computer giant Apple on Monday, saying the company refused to open the iPhone of Pensacola shooter Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani.

Officials have said that the killer, a lieutenant with the Saudi Air Force, opened fire at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida in December, 2019. He injured eight people and killed three: Ensign Joshua Kaleb Watson, 23, Airman Mohammed Sameh Haitham, 19, and Airman Apprentice Cameron Scott Walters, 21.

Barr and Wray announced on Monday that investigators were after many months able to unlock Alshamrani’s iPhone and confirm ties to the terrorist group Al-Qaeda. The shooter was radicalized as far back as 2015 before arriving in the United States, expressed a desire for flying years ago, and had been planning the incident for a long time, according to the account released Monday. Alshamrani shared plans and tactics with Al-Qaeda, coordinating with them so they could take credit for the shooting, the FBI Director said.

But officials leaned in hard on Apple during the press conference. Wray complained the government received “effectively no help” from the tech company and had to figure out how to unlock the iPhone themselves. They said they were able to do it. Officials didn’t describe the method; they said only the technique had “limited application.”

Wray described this as a “broader Apple problem,” arguing that the company’s reluctance to help left investigators in the dark during the critical early stages of the case. Investigators spoke to base personnel and the shooters’ friends and classmates without knowing what they know now. Now there’s been months for subject to make up stories, destroy evidence, and disappear, the FBI Director said.

Barr described this as a “great disappointment,” and argued that that under the law, individual privacy must yield to the public interest in these circumstances.

“The false claims made about our company are an excuse to weaken encryption and other security measures that protect millions of users and our national security,” the company said in a statement to Law&Crime. “It is because we take our responsibility to national security so seriously that we do not believe in the creation of a backdoor — one which will make every device vulnerable to bad actors who threaten our national security and the data security of our customers. There is no such thing as a backdoor just for the good guys, and the American people do not have to choose between weakening encryption and effective investigations.”

Apple said they cooperated with the FBI’s first requests for information, and continued to support the investigation.

“We provided every piece of information available to us, including iCloud backups, account information and transactional data for multiple accounts, and we lent continuous and ongoing technical and investigative support to FBI offices in Jacksonville, Pensacola and New York over the months since,” they said.

Edit: Updated with a statement from Apple.

[Image of Apple Store in Washington D.C. via SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images]

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