Attorney General William Barr on Monday increased the pressure on Apple to help investigators access the locked cellphones of the deceased shooter in the Pensacola, Fla., naval base attack.
“This situation perfectly illustrates why it is critical that investigators be able to get access to digital evidence once they have obtained a court order based on probable cause,” Barr said during a press conference about the FBI’s investigation into the Dec. 6 shooting.
The FBI asked Apple for help after its agents were unable to access the shooter’s two iPhones. Apple told POLITICO last week that it provided as much help as it could, but Barr said Monday that the company “has not given us any substantive assistance.”
“It is very important to know with whom and about what the shooter was communicating before he died,” Barr said. “We call on Apple and other technology companies to help us find a solution so that we can better protect the lives of Americans and prevent future attacks.”
Barr’s comments reflect the Justice Department’s continued fixation on an issue that the government calls “going dark,” the proliferation of encrypted devices and apps that even their creators cannot break into when presented with a warrant.
But Silicon Valley, mindful of privacy and security concerns sparked by NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s surveillance disclosures, has refused to take that step. Tech companies and cybersecurity experts argue that doing so would weaken the encryption protecting consumers and critical infrastructure from criminals and terrorists.
In speeches and press conferences, senior Trump administration officials have pushed back on that argument, continuing a law-enforcement crusade that began in the 1990s and gained new life after a December 2015 San Bernardino, Calif., terrorist attack in which the shooter killed 14 people. Afterward, the government sought Apple’s help to bypass security features to access the dead shooter’s iPhone. The tech giant said it was unable to help, leading to a high-profile court battle between Apple and the government.
Last summer, Barr warned that the administration might give up trying to persuade companies to voluntarily change their code. “While we remain open to a cooperative approach,” he said, “the time to achieve that may be limited.”
The administration has not asked Congress to pass legislation mandating changes to encryption, but tech companies faced bipartisan backlash at a Senate hearing in December.
Addressing reporters on Monday, Barr said the Pensacola case illustrated the perils of a world in which criminals and terrorists could hide their plotting behind warrant-proof encryption.
“We’re seeing an increasing number of these cases,” he said, “and it’s becoming a grave problem.”
While encryption has stymied federal investigators in several cases since President Donald Trump took office, his administration has refrained from launching a high-profile legal fight with Apple of the sort that Obama-administration officials pursued after the San Bernardino attack.
Barr declined to comment on Monday when asked if DOJ would sue Apple to obtain more assistance in the Pensacola investigation.
Even so, the attorney general left no doubt about his position on the complicated issue of encryption.
“We don’t want to get into a world where we have to spend months and even years exhausting efforts when lives are in the balance,” he said. “We should be able to get in once we have a warrant that establishes that criminal activity is probably underway.”