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November 10, 2017

Texas shooter’s iPhone creates latest wrinkle in Apple/FBI encryption battle

by John_A

Apple is striking back after the FBI said earlier this week that it was unable to access Texas shooter Devin Patrick Kelley’s iPhone.

During a press conference on Tuesday, FBI special agent Christopher Combs expressed dismay over the agency’s inability to unlock Kelley’s phone after a shooting in Sutherland Springs on Sunday that left 26 people dead.

“It highlights an issue that you’ve all heard about before, with the advance of the technology and the phones and the encryptions [sic], law enforcement, whether that’s at the state, local or federal level, is increasingly not able to get into these phones,” Cooper said, without referring directly to Apple.

On Wednesday, November 8, Apple responded to the FBI’s criticism stating that it actually reached out to assist the FBI shortly after Tuesday’s press conference. In a statement provided to BuzzFeed, Apple said neither local, state, nor federal officials reached out to the company before the press conference. It also offered to expedite any requests from officials.

Apple's statement on the phone used by the Texas church gunman is quite something pic.twitter.com/RVwk13tM6U

— John Paczkowski (@JohnPaczkowski) November 8, 2017

The timing of both the FBI’s statement, as well as Apple’s response, is crucial to the investigation. Had the FBI had contacted the iPhone maker within the first 48 hours of the shooting, they could have possibly used the phone’s Touch ID technology to unlock the phone. After 48 hours, however, Touch ID can no longer be used to unlock the phone.

After reaching out to the FBI on Tuesday to see if it needed help unlocking Kelley’s phone, an official with the agency responded stating the agency was not asking for any assistance. According to a story in the Washington Post, investigators decided instead to send the phone to its Quantico, Virginia, headquarters to attempt to find a different way to access data, a decision that could take weeks.

While 80 percent of iPhone users rely on the Touch ID feature to unlock their phones, it’s unknown if Kelley used the feature. Even without Touch ID, other options exist for accessing the shooter’s data. Apple provides encrypted iCloud storage data and decryption keys to law enforcement officials with a court order.

The Texas shooting is just the latest in a series of battles between Apple and law enforcement agencies. In 2016 the FBI took Apple to court in an attempt to force the company to unlock San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook’s iPhone. After a protracted legal battle, the FBI eventually dropped the case after it was able to unlock the phone with third-party software.

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