FBI, Apple eye new fight over encryption

FBI, Apple eye new fight over encryption
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The FBI and Apple could be heading for a new fight over access to a dead terrorist's iPhone.

This time, law enforcement officials are seeking to unlock the iPhone belonging to Dahir Adan, whom authorities say committed September's mass stabbing in a St. Cloud, Minn. shopping mall.

"Dahir Adan's iPhone is locked and we are in the process of assessing our legal and technical options to gain access to this device and the data it may contain," FBI special agent Rich Thornton told reporters Friday.

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Sound familiar? It's not the first time the FBI has found itself unable, after a violent terrorist attack, to access an iPhone to gain information it believes crucial to the investigation.

In early 2016, that was the situation in San Bernardino, Calif., where the FBI wanted access to the phone of a married couple that was inspired by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and carried out a mass shooting.

The San Bernardino case put the battle over unbreakable encryption in the national spotlight, pitting the federal government's top law enforcement agency against one of Silicon Valley's heavyweights.

Apple refused to unlock the San Bernardino shooter's iPhone. Ultimately, the FBI was forced to hire an outside contractor to break into the phone for them. The controversy brought pressure on lawmakers, who took tough stands on the issue and sought to pass legislation.

A number of high-profile lawmakers, including Sens. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainJuan Williams: Biden's promises on women are a big deal Ernst calls for public presidential campaign funds to go to masks, protective equipment President Trump is right — Now's the time for 'all hands on deck' MORE (R-Ariz.) and Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinDemocratic lawmakers demand government stop deporting unaccompanied children DOJ probing stock transactions made by lawmakers ahead of coronavirus crisis: report Lobbying frenzy connected to stimulus sparks backlash MORE (Calif.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, as well as law enforcement agencies argue that unbreakable encryption prevents police and intelligence agencies from getting at important evidence. They believe that all encryption should be required to include some mechanism to allow police to recover data.

Opponents see a host of problems. Encryption is a critical component of online commerce, protecting personal information and halting foreign attackers from stealing intellectual property. Creating so-called "backdoors" means trusting someone to guard the keys to backdoors.

A recent leak of NSA source code shows how difficult it can be to keep those keys secure. And by creating the backdoors, tech companies increase the complexity of their code, likely creating more coding errors that hackers could exploit.

After San Bernardino, there was a flurry of activity to try to rein in encryption, ranging from a bill that would have forced tech companies to help break encryption. That legislation from Feinstein and Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrDOJ probing stock transactions made by lawmakers ahead of coronavirus crisis: report GOP presses for swift Ratcliffe confirmation to intel post Stimulus bill to prohibit Trump family, lawmakers from benefiting from loan programs MORE (R-N.C.) was met with criticism from privacy advocates and security watchdogs.

The encryption debate is fueled by other cases as well. Police departments hold large caches of phones they hope to break into to investigate a range of other crimes. McCain often argues that encryption is bolstering the child pornography industry. 

But the terror cases have sparked the most debate and with the election a month away, a new fight over encryption could thrust the issue into the 2016 race.

Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpCuomo grilled by brother about running for president: 'No. no' Maxine Waters unleashes over Trump COVID-19 response: 'Stop congratulating yourself! You're a failure' Meadows resigns from Congress, heads to White House MORE jumped into the debate after the San Bernardino shootings, calling for a boycott of Apple products until the issue was resolved.

Last month, FBI Director James Comey called for delaying any further conversations about encryption until 2017 when cooler heads might prevail.

But if terrorism moves the conversation the way it did last time, that may prove to be wishful thinking.

 

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