The issue of law enforcement access to iPhones surfaced again this week in Attorney General Bob Barr's press conference on the December 2019 shooting at Pensacola Naval Air Station.
The attorney general, as did law enforcement officials in the Obama Administration, has pressed Apple to provide technological backdoors to help them access information to locked phones, but Apple has balked pointing to privacy issues.
On Dec. 6, Second Lieutenant Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, a member of the Royal Saudi Air Force training in the U.S., shot and killed three U.S. sailors, and wounded eight other people, before being killed himself. It has been branded an act of terrorism.
Barr cited two Apple iPhones owned by the shooter but damaged during the incident.
He said that the FBI had restored both operational status and had gotten court authorization to search them, but said both are engineered to be "virtually impossible to unlock."
"It is very important to know with whom and about what the shooter was communicating before he died," he said, adding that Apple has not provided any "substantive assistance" in that effort.
"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," he 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."
Apple and the Justice Department were at similar loggerheads over FBI efforts to access a phone used by the San Bernardino shooter in 2016, but the FBI eventually cracked that phone, mooting the court fight in that case.
Tech groups generally back Apple.
They argue that if Apple is forced to develop a backdoor for law enforcement access to locked phones, it is "inevitable" that the government, federal, state and local, will try to get access to other operating systems, and that the further inevitable result will be that companies will either design products that can more easily meet those government demands, or make them "impossible" to hack. The first would weaken security to the detriment of users' privacy, economic interests and national security. The second could hurt law enforcement and national security.
“We reject the characterization that Apple has not provided substantive assistance in the Pensacola investigation," it said in a statement. "Our responses to their many requests since the attack have been timely, thorough and are ongoing.”