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 McCainDem gains put Sunbelt in play for 2020 Trump set to have close ally Graham in powerful chairmanship Cindy McCain takes aim at Trump: We need a strong leader, 'not a negative Nancy' MORE (R-Ariz.) and Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinTrump set to have close ally Graham in powerful chairmanship Lawmakers say California will eventually get emergency funding for fire relief Top Dems: DOJ position on Whitaker appointment 'fatally flawed' 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 BurrFDA tobacco crackdown draws fire from right Rand Paul blocking Trump counterterrorism nominee Senate panel seeks interview with Steve Bannon, lawyer says 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 TrumpBroward County official Brenda Snipes submits resignation after criticism Retired lieutenant general tears into Trump over attacks against Navy SEAL: 'Disgusting' Senate barrels toward showdown over Trump's court picks 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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