Expect the rancorous debate over forcing tech companies to weaken encryption to be front and center again in the wake of the recent church massacre in Texas. Last Sunday, gunman Devin Kelley, 26, opened fire in a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. He killed 26 people and injured many others. Later, Kelley himself died from multiple gunshot wounds, at least one of which was self-inflicted.
Law enforcement officials initially refused to reveal the brand of Kelley's phone. The reasoning was that they didn't want to give other "bad guys" a heads-up about which type of phone is impervious to breaching. However, after Apple reached out to offer assistance, the FBI confirmed that the phone in question was an iPhone. Interestingly, it refused Apple's offer of assistance, according to the Washington Post, preferring instead to attempt to access the gunman's data via linked devices and cloud storage.
The FBI also threw more light on the severity of the problem of unbreakable encryption. It apparently has a warehouse full of such devices.
A Change of Policy?
If the phone in question had Apple's Touch ID feature, which uses fingerprints to unlock the phone, investigators could have tried to hold the dead gunman's finger on the phone. This would have had to be done within 48 hours of the previous unlocking.
Apple’s outreach is interesting because it appears to be an about-face from the company's previous position regarding cooperating with law enforcement over unlocking encrypted phones. Apple’s offer of help is also intriguing because the company has long maintained that its phones are manufactured in a way that even the company itself can't get in unless the owner cooperates. It will be interesting to see how this plays out. Could Apple’s contention have been a ruse to discourage law enforcement from continually asking for a key?
The issue of breaking into phones first received mass media attention in 2015, when FBI and Apple engaged in a public battle over the San Bernardino, CA shooter’s iPhone. The company refused to create a "back door" for the FBI to break the phone’s encryption. During that battle, President Trump urged a boycott of Apple. The FBI eventually hired a third party company for $1.3 million to hack the phone. Since then, the issue of encryption has been relatively dormant. With hefty price-tags like that, it’s no wonder the FBI has piles of phones that it's waiting to access.
The Case Against Privacy
The Justice Department, miffed about its inability to crack phones in the past, weighed in at that time. Deputy Attorney-General Rod Rosenstein commented,
“Nobody has a legitimate privacy interest in that phone. The suspect is deceased. Even if he were alive, it would be legal for police and prosecutors to find out what is in the phone.
“When you shoot dozens of innocent American citizens, we want law enforcement to investigate your communications and stored data... There are things that we need to know.... As a matter of fact, no reasonable person questions our right to access the phone.”
Apple has consistently pushed back against calls to weaken encryption. The company maintains that deliberately weakening the encryption and/or accommodating law enforcement’s requests would make customers vulnerable to criminals also accessing the information. In other words, weakening encryption would invite bad actors into the picture.
Thus the prickly problem of encrypted phones continues with no apparent solution in sight. It seems the controversy will be reignited each time there is a shooting and an iPhone. Will manufacturers continue to remain steadfast and adamant in their refusal to implement backdoors? Indeed, with all that is at stake concerning privacy and security is, achieving a compromise even possible? These questions are likely to be revisited at the time of the next massacre - a sad likelihood, given America’s glut of guns.
Opinions are the writer's own.