FBI and Apple May Again Clash Over Encypted iPhone After Texas Shooting

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The FBI and Apple could be headed for another showdown after the FBI has reportedly found itself stymied by an encrypted iPhone. The device in question belonged to Devin Kelley, the suspected shooter in last weekend’s Texas church shooting. The agency initially refused to identify the phone make, but it’s now telling media that it’s an Apple device. The FBI has had a lot to say about encryption in recent years, and this could add fuel to the fire.

The Sutherland Springs shooter’s phone is encrypted, which prevents investigators from accessing its contents. That’s the default setting on most phones now–both Android and iOS encrypt device storage, and there’s no way to access that data if a phone has a secure unlock method like a PIN or fingerprint. Even biometrics like fingerprint unlock aren’t enough to unlock a phone after it has been idle for too long. At that point, you need the phone’s password to gain access.

Apple and the FBI previously butted heads over the phone belonging to the San Bernardino shooter in late 2015. In that case, the iPhone was issued by the county government that employed the shooter before the attack. Apple asked county IT specialists to reset the device’s iCloud password, but that only served to make backups inaccessible. The FBI asked Apple to bypass the device’s encryption, but the company refused, saying any tool to break its encryption would be dangerous for all of its users.

In the end, the FBI dropped the case after it found a third-party firm to unlock the phone. These sort of undisclosed vulnerabilities are highly prized among security firms, and the FBI paid handsomely for the unlocking service.

FBI Director Christopher Wray in 2017.

The agency appears to have learned its lesson from the mistakes in its San Bernardino investigation. Following the Sutherland Springs, TX shooting, the FBI began a forensic examination of the shooter’s phone. It didn’t immediately demand Apple get the device working. In fact, Apple had to reach out to see if the phone was an iPhone.

The FBI is still looking for backups of the phone’s data on a laptop or online. That could provide the agency with what it needs and save it from another messy court battle. Last time, some Apple engineers pledged to quit before they built a tool that could break encryption on the iPhone. Apple’s legal team also seemed ready to take the case all the way to the Supreme Court.

If the data on the shooter’s phone is of that much interest to the FBI, we could be looking at another legal showdown.

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