back to article If at first you don't succeed, pry, pry again: Feds once again demand Apple unlock encrypted iPhones in yet another terrorism case

The FBI has asked Apple to unlock two iPhones belonging to a murderer, potentially reviving a tense battle over encryption and the rights of law enforcement to digital devices. Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, of the Saudi Royal Air Force, shot and killed three people and injured eight others at a US naval base in Pensacola, Florida …

  1. BillG
    IT Angle

    Deja-Vu All Over Again

    The FBI has asked Apple to unlock two iPhones belonging to a murderer, potentially reviving a tense battle over encryption and the rights of law enforcement to digital devices.

    I dunno - I suspect the Feds have secretly had the ability to unlock these phones for a very long time, maybe even with Apple's covert help, and this is all just misdirection.

    1. quxinot

      Re: Deja-Vu All Over Again

      Yep! It makes people think they're safer from spying if the feds are plainly having so much difficulty cracking a phone open to get at the data that they collected at a network level anyway.

      Honestly it's just embarrassing. I wish they'd at least put a veneer of competence on. It's an awful feeling knowing that your taxes go to people that are that crap at their jobs.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Deja-Vu All Over Again

      Are the downvotes denial? Can there be any doubt, after the various domestic spying reveals, that the FBI privately does whatever they want, regardless of the law? (And they have a warrant so in this case it'd be legal anyway.) Is there any doubt, at this point, that their public moves are strategic attempts to legitimize things they already do in private or to push their "backdoor" agenda?

      Look, I don't want to trash talk the FBI, and maybe that's some of the defensiveness. They're still the good guys, on the whole. I'm sure they believe this, and this is part of the problem: knowing you have the moral high ground justifies a multitude of sins. And, after a few decades of illegal spying, the evidence strongly supports a claim that the agency considers itself above the law. This isn't conspiracy theory, it's been headline news for years now.

      Are the downvotes saying the claim " ...the Feds have secretly had the ability to unlock these phones for a very long time" is false? Of course they do. It's probably just slow and expensive to brute those large keys at this time. More denial.

      Hell yeah it's anonymous. The FBI knows who I am anyway, and the rest of you don't need to.

      1. Psmo

        Re: Deja-Vu All Over Again

        By the way, you aren't anonymous here.

        Quite apart from phrasing and style analysis, the mods know who you are.

      2. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

        Re: Deja-Vu All Over Again

        The FBI does whatever they can. That's not the same as whatever they want. The best evidence strongly suggests they can't always unlock smartphones; it seems to depend on what Cellebrite can do at the moment.

        The paranoic nihilism of "of course the gummint can break all encryption" voiced by some commentators is unproductive. Either they can, in which case nothing is lost by using encryption; or they can't, in which case there's something to be gained. It's a Pascal's Wager.

        As for "still the good guys": That's a reduction so naive as to be worthless. The Bureau's sins are many and long-standing; they've never been "the good guys" in any way that excuses their misdeeds. And there's plenty of evidence that the FBI is as bad as ever.

  2. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

    Apple should respond to the lawful request

    And to the Saudl's request to unlock the phones of all the US officers on the base to see what their involvement was

    1. jmch Silver badge

      Re: Apple should respond to the lawful request

      They should, if they can, but the whole point of the strong encryption is that they can't even if they wanted to. FBI is likely try to use the case as leverage to legislate for backdoors

      1. Claptrap314 Silver badge

        Re: Apple should respond to the lawful request


    2. Ian Joyner Bronze badge

      Re: Apple should respond to the lawful request

      Exactly. If one government can do this then other repressive governments can do it. If the government can do it, hackers can do it.

      No backdoors should be provided – if there are backdoors, all bets are off, everyone is vulnerable to anything.

  3. Steve Davies 3 Silver badge

    What about that 'Cellbrite' kit?

    That the Feds spent lots of Taxpayer dollars on that was supposed to be able to do this at the press of a button?

    Don't tell me that it was a scam?

    Mines the one with a pair of semaphore flags in the pocket as that's what we will be back to using if the Feds have their way.

    1. Is It Me

      Re: What about that 'Cellbrite' kit?

      Probably wasn't a scam, could probably only unlock a particular version of iOS based on a flaw in the OS.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: What about that 'Cellbrite' kit?

        Yes, if they are truthful in saying they've exhausted all other avenues then I guess that means Apple has fixed the exploits Cellebrite used the last time (which was on a now seven year old iPhone/iOS)

        I think the FBI may be wanting to remove all the past objections, especially the egg on their face when they insisted they had to have Apple's help then got a third party to unlock it for them (and found nothing of value on the phone) so they're trying to cover all their bases this time so Apple may really be their last resort.

        Obviously they're hoping for a sympathetic congress (won't someone think of the murdered servicemen's children!) to pass laws banning this type of encryption where no one holds the key except the end user. And damn the unintended consequences where every other country does the same and the phones belonging congressmen stolen by a "pickpocket" when they are overseas are trivially unlocked and all their secrets exposed to China, Russia, Iran etc.

    2. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      Re: What about that 'Cellbrite' kit?


      Cellebrite presumably have exploits for some iPhone models (IIRC, some of their tech is hardware-based) and some iOS versions. At one time I believe they claimed to be able to unlock all currently-available iPhones, but it's entirely possible that they haven't managed to break the latest models.

  4. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    Yeah, sure

    "The Attorney General has made it plain he believes there should be a legal mechanism to allow law enforcement to access the contents of phones"

    Please go ahead and do that. Then watch as the USA becomes a third-world country while everyone else enjoys proper encryption.

    If you don't want to listen to reason, if you refuse to acknowledge how the world actually works, then you deserve what you get when you try to force your fantasies on Real Life (TM).

    1. Teiwaz

      Re: Yeah, sure

      Please go ahead and do that. Then watch as the USA becomes a third-world country while everyone else enjoys proper encryption.

      Unfortunately, most the rest of the 'first world' governments also want to do the same.

      1. dave 81

        Re: Yeah, sure

        Yup, Tried to explain it to my Idiot MP Alok, but either too thick to understand, or all the stated reasons for wanting this are lies, and its all about control.

        1. The Man Who Fell To Earth Silver badge

          Re: Yeah, sure

          It's always about control. Even in a democracy, politicians don't trust the citizenry.

          1. Woodnag

            Re: Yeah, sure

            It's not a question of trusting the citizen. It's a question of maintaining the status quo by detecting potential threats to the military-business complexes and defusing them before they materialise. Not bomb threats, political threats like effective leaders in civil disobedience, or rising popular and effective polititians like AOC getting into office.

        2. osmarks

          Re: Yeah, sure

          I complained to my MP about this sort of thing by email. About a week later, I got a response, by letter, from someone else in Parliament, which didn't seem to have been remotely connected to what I said except that it was loosely about encryption.

    2. israel_hands

      Re: Yeah, sure

      Then watch as the USA becomes a third-world country...

      What do you mean, becomes?

    3. Anonymous Coward


      If US law mandates Apple and Google provide a way to unlock phones on demand, how exactly do people in other countries enjoy "proper encryption"? They will have the worst of all worlds, because they won't be protected, the US will be able to access their phones if they get their hands on them, while their governments won't benefit.

      What would really happen is that other governments would make the same laws, or those that already have them would now have a lever to enforce them.

      1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

        Re: Huh?

        If US law mandates Apple and Google provide a way to unlock phones on demand, how exactly do people in other countries enjoy "proper encryption"?

        Manufacturers in other countries can use a forked Android.

        Also, of course, it's entirely possible to use encryption on a smartphone which is not tied to the phone's lock state. I have apps now which aren't unlocked with the phone; they have separate credentials. So they'd need to mandate not just phone-unlocking backdoors but also backdoors in that type of app. Keyloggers and such could capture fixed credentials, of course; it's always an arms race. But technology tends to outpace legislation and regulation.

    4. veti Silver badge

      Re: Yeah, sure

      Look, the Feds have done everything right. They've seized the phone, they've got the search warrant. All the concerns about "search and seizure" and "due process" have been satisfied. They're not trying to get in through some back door, they're trying to kick down the front door.

      At this point, I really, really want them to have access. Because if they can't get it, then our days of being allowed to use proper encryption at all are numbered.

      Watching the watchmen is a balancing act. Sure, keep them from overstepping the bounds. But if you're trying to thwart them even when they do everything right, then you are the one who has crossed the bounds, and now you're their enemy. Expect to be treated as such.

      1. Karl Vegar

        Re: Yeah, sure

        Yes, the FBI have done everything right. And yest they are kicking at the front door.

        Makes no difference. That is not what this case (or any of the preceding ones)

        To take your door analogy. The door is 5 inch tempered steel. Apple cannot make it half inch soft wood just because FBI is asking nicely. And a court order will not change this.

        1. Grooke

          Re: Yeah, sure

          It's even worse. Apple should make it 5 inch steel, with a secret soft wood hole that only the good guys know about.

  5. big_D Silver badge

    No more iPhones, check.

    So, the Trump administration has already shown that international users should avoid cloud services with US influence, Android devices (Huawei debacle), products in general with US influence and now they are trying to make non-Americans worried about using iPhones...

    I suppose that is one way to try and improve your economy... :-S

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: No more iPhones, check.

      I know you've got trump derangement syndrome but Obama was no better from a data protection perspective and do you really think the UK government is more trustworthy?

      1. big_D Silver badge

        Re: No more iPhones, check.

        I don't have Trump derangement syndrome. I just look at the effects of the policies his administration are making and how they affect us, as non-US citizens.

        I wouldn't trust the UK government either. But, luckily, I don't live in the UK either.

      2. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

        Re: No more iPhones, check.

        It's been a long time since we had a president who was a real supporter of civil rights. Carter could probably be described that way, but not anyone since.

    2. Franco

      Re: No more iPhones, check.

      Most, if not all, of the Five Eyes group are anti-encryption, or at least have requested backdoors for "Offical" use. Australia in particular have been quite vocal on this.

      1. big_D Silver badge

        Re: No more iPhones, check.

        Our government is pro-encryption, for the most part, for normal citizens, to ensure their privacy.

        1. Version 1.0 Silver badge

          Re: No more iPhones, check.

          Quick correction:

          Our government is pro-encryption with back-doors, for the most part, for normal citizens, to ensure that their privacy is something that they can scan continually.

          There, fixed it for you.

          1. big_D Silver badge

            Re: No more iPhones, check.

            Nope, our government is has said it doesn't want backdoors. Although one minister is holding out for backdoors.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: No more iPhones, check.

          "Our government is pro-encryption, for the most part, for normal citizens, to ensure their privacy."

          Perhaps you might like to give those of us who aren't psychic a clue as to which country "our" actually relates to in this context? ;-)

          1. big_D Silver badge

            Re: No more iPhones, check.


            The general view is that encryption is good for its citizens, apart from Edmund Stoiber who still wants his "Staatstrojaner"...

            I'm all for encryption and the police having to get a warrant and then installing eavesdropping software on defined devices. There is no need for back doors to encryption.

            Although the stance might be changing, they announced this week that they are planning to ask service providers to provide passwords upon request - that is another numpty suggestion, as they don't have the passwords, just the hashes, if they are doing it right.

            1. Robert Helpmann??

              Re: No more iPhones, check.

              ...they don't have the passwords, just the hashes, if they are doing it right.

              On a practical level, these two are equivalent for the resources a government can throw at the issue. An entity with that level of resources should be able to create rainbow tables for all service providers. Happily (as long as you are not part of one of those entities), this is not the way it works. Hashes are stored locally and different user accounts have different salt applied, which increases the number of combinations needed to be taken into account for rainbow tables to work. They can theoretically still work, but don't provide much benefit.


              1. Claptrap314 Silver badge

                Re: No more iPhones, check.

                Pass phrases make a hash of rainbow tables.

              2. MrReynolds2U

                Re: No more iPhones, check.

                Since the provider's software or website created the hash in the first place, it's a very simple task to re-create it to a known password hash and then back again. If you have access to the back-end systems there are all manner of ways to get in unless the data is encrypted using an end-user-based key.

            2. osmarks

              Re: No more iPhones, check.

              The trouble is that they can only install this "eavesdropping software" if there's some sort of exploit or deliberate backdoor in the software involved, and exploits not being reported and instead being hoarded, or backdoors being added, is also very bad.

            3. keb

              Germany supports privacy?

              Is this the same government that allows the NSA to intercept all of its communications from a base in Germany they arent allowed to access, including the Chancellor's phone?

              Encryption is much less important when all the metadata is available to the eavesdropper.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Apple has always given up iCloud data with a judge's order

      If you don't like it, do what I do and backup locally to your own computer instead of using iCloud.

      I really wish Apple provided a way to set a locally controlled iCloud encryption key so the data on iCloud would be unreadable to anything but my own iPhone. i.e. just like it works for local backups. I kind of wonder if the reason they don't is because of the huge backlash there would be from the FBI etc. when ALL data on iPhones went "dark", rather than just the data of people who don't use iCloud.

  6. gnasher729 Silver badge

    Apple will do what they have done before: They give the FBI all the help they can.

    The 2016 case was a bit pathetic. Apparently in 2016, Apple _could_ have given the FBI access to a lot of data that was stored in iCloud. However, the FBI tried to hack into iCloud and while doing that managed to make it inaccessible for Apple. Tough shit. Maybe that is what the FBI wants this time, enough help to get all the information that they can get without messing up on the way. Except I think whatever access Apple had to your iCloud data in 2016 is probably gone by now.

    But Apple has set up iPhones so that even Apple cannot access _your_ iPhone. And they are not going to change that. And it's hard to force Apple because you can't quite get subpoenas for information about crimes that may happen in the future.

    1. GruntyMcPugh Silver badge

      @Gnasher729: "you can't quite get subpoenas for information about crimes that may happen in the future."

      Coming from the Orange one in 2020 "Minority Force".

      1. Claptrap314 Silver badge

        You must be a special kind of stupid to think that this problem goes away with a change of administration. Who was President the last time this happened?

        1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

          And even a POTUS who was strongly pro-encryption (already highly unlikely) would face tremendous resistance within the executive branch and from Congress.

          Most of the current judicial branch doesn't seem particularly likely to support encryption for citizens either; certainly the FISC Star Chamber is more than happy to roll over when any intelligence agency says "boo", and I don't expect the last couple of SCOTUS appointees to do anything much to reign in the police state.

          Barr (and by extension his nominal boss) is part of the problem here, but removing him and other senior players in the administration wouldn't change much.

    2. Richard Parkin

      @gnasher729 Exactly! And it sounds like they may have done it again since the report says they’ve tried to access the phone’s ‘contents’. The account and the iCloud backups are probably all locked and inaccessible even to Apple.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Where did you hear this?

      Trying to access data on iCloud doesn't render it inaccessible, certainly not inaccessible to Apple.

      The San Bernadino shooter didn't have any iCloud data, they wanted to access his phone but they couldn't just go trying passcodes because of an increasing delay after each attempt and possibly (depending on configuration by the user) erasing the whole device after 10 failed attempts.

      They wanted Apple to craft a special iOS update just for this phone that they could load in "DFU mode" with an attached USB cable that would bypass the limits on the number of passcodes they could try (or maybe bypass the passcode altogether, though I'm not sure that was possible then - and definitely isn't possible now with the way the Secure Element works)

      Apple has always had access to your iCloud data - it is encrypted at rest so employees can't just go snooping it but if they get a court order they can produce it in unencrypted form. Most of it at least, I think some of it is double encrypted and only the user's phone can access it but stuff like text messages, call history etc. is not double encrypted and thus can be made available by Apple to a court order.

    4. MrReynolds2U

      If you phone (any brand) is setup to receive auto updates for certain apps or security updates, it's not an arduous task to gain access if you happen to control the app store or OS itself. Plus there are still ways to change phone configurations like APN via special SMS messages, or you can simply create a local tower and MITM any connections.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Compliance statement

    Dear FBI,

    Thank you for your legally binding request that we break the encryption on iPhone #<REDACTED>. We are in the process of complying with your request. ETTC (Estimated Time To Crack) is now approximately 4 million 321 thousand 839 years 300 days 14 hours 6 minutes and 52 seconds. We will update you on progress once every thousand years or so.

    Regards, Apple Inc.

    1. Aleph0

      Re: Compliance statement

      P.S.: estimated electricity cost will be 65.83 quintillion dollars. Who do we bill for that?

      1. Franco

        Re: Compliance statement

        "Who do we bill for that?"


    2. Robert Heffernan

      Re: Compliance statement

      12 days later:


      [Process Complete: Encryption Key '4D436679648159262E93C2C184DC4' ]

      1. Grooke

        Re: Compliance statement

        Adding 4D436679648159262E93C2C184DC4 to the list of passwords never to use.

        (Not because of some inherent weakness, just because it can now turn up in searches)

  8. Milton

    What more could Apple do?

    "If Apple then refuses to provide access to the phones – which is highly likely – the Feds are in the best possible position for a potential legal challenge."


    "As for Apple, its formal response so far has been the following: 'We have the greatest respect for law enforcement and have always worked cooperatively to help in their investigations. When the FBI requested information from us relating to this case a month ago, we gave them all of the data in our possession and we will continue to support them with the data we have available.'"

    Not quite sure what more Apple could conceivably do. They can't "provide access to the phones" without the encryption keys, which they do not and almost certainly cannot obtain: their entire system is designed to prevent anyone from doing this, no matter how intimate their knowledge of the phone's secure architecture. Which is exactly the way it should be, because everyone here* knows that security through obscurity is not security at all, and that if an individual person or organisation possesses specific privileged knowledge, that information leaks. Even NSA has leaked, copiously. Does anyone seriously believe that knowledge of Apple's "secret sauce" wouldn't soon become public? This kind of stuff always does.

    Furthermore, Apple clearly states that it has given the feds "all of the data in our possession". So what, exactly, is the point of the request at all?

    Based on the seemingly limitless stupidity of the politicians and security-complex bureaucrats who drive this kind of behaviour, is it possible that someone still believes that Apple has a Magic Key to unlock their phones? Like the Super Ultra Magic Key that the government will keep safe—"honest guv, you can trust us"—while using it to cripple messaging encryption?

    If you use a secure encryption scheme and key known only to you, to save a message which you subsequently print and store in a safety deposit box, for how long will government idiots pursue the bank to do more to help decrypt the message? The bank can only hand over the contents of the box: the printout. It cannot provide the cryptographic key, because it doesn't have it.

    Is this so difficult to understand?

    * That is, a readership which largely understands the critical distinction between ignorant, wishful, often deceitful "thinking" (politicians) and fact-based, evidence-driven, truth-respecting, logical reasoning (scientists, engineers, technologists).

    1. D@v3

      Re: What more could Apple do?

      The way that i see it, in this case, there is no more that Apple can do, because (as you say) they DONT have the keys.

      However, (again, just the way that i see it) what is happening here is the Feds are laying groundwork so that they can say

      'This keeps happening, and you try to help, but CANT, so, how about, when you release iOS14, you slip in a little bit of code which will allow you to help, WHEN this happens again, which we both know it will'

      1. tekHedd

        Re: What more could Apple do?

        Likely there was a quiet NSA-mandated backdoor disguised as a bug, but some pesky whitehat found and reported it. :)

  9. JimmyPage Silver badge

    Russian dolls ?

    It would be ... interesting if Apple were able to provide the ability to decrypt the phones contents, only for the FBI to discover that the deceased perp rather unsportingly went a step further and made sure that whatever he was storing on the phone was already encrypted with something like proper 4096-bit RSA/AES clout.

  10. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    How about an arrangement like this:

    Assuming that it's technically possible to unlock the phone then for each phone an agency wants unlocking the agency has to provide the phone of one of its senior staff or one of its political masters - a public interest third party gets to choose which. Both phones are unlocked and the complete contents of the agency phone get published. What's the problem with that? If they have nothing to hide they have nothing to fear.

    1. Ken Hagan Gold badge

      "What's the problem with that?"

      I have much less interest in the contents of someone else's phone than some people apparently have in mine, and no interest at all in the contents of their *burner* phone.

  11. fidodogbreath

    But the FBI's general counsel doesn’t write letters just for the hell of it. Something’s afoot.

    They chose this case to try again for the same reason that they chose the San Bernardino case: scary Muslim foreigners killed Americans, so public sentiment will be on the FBI's side, in turn creating pressure on Apple to comply.

    When Apple inevitably refuses, the Feds will float it as a test case, because their wet dream is a favorable Federal court ruling that establishes precedent forcing Apple to assist. Once that precedent is established, they can then use the case law to force cooperation from other companies that provide encrypted devices and/or comms. (Barring another 9/11 scale attack, it's a long shot that Congress would pass legislation to that effect IMHO.)

    If the Feds read the tea leaves and think the case might produce the opposite result, they will back down (as they did in 2016) and pay some company such as Cellebrite to do the dirty for them. Their worst nightmare is a Supreme Court ruling that companies such as Apple do not have a duty to hack their own systems. By backing down from the demand if it looks like they might lose, they moot the case so that Apple (or whoever) no longer has standing to pursue it; thus preserving the current state of ambiguity.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      It sounds like the FBI is claiming they have already contacted third parties such as Cellebrite and they were unable to unlock it.

      I think they know that trying to force Apple and then a few weeks later seeing on the news "oh well nevermind we found another way to unlock it" didn't look good last time. So this time they are covering all their bases by asking those inside and outside the government to unlock it for them and have only gone to Apple as a last resort. That will make their case a lot stronger with the "something must be done" crowd.

  12. DerekCurrie

    Just another FBI ploy to wreck the 4th and 5th Amendments

    #MyStupidGovernment @work.

    Check this out and realize...

    The FBI Got Data From A Locked iPhone 11 Pro Max—So Why Is It Demanding Apple Unlock Older Phones?


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