FBI Says It Still Can’t Access Data on Florida Shooter’s iPhone

(Bloomberg) -- The FBI has reconstructed an iPhone belonging to the shooter behind the December Naval Air Station attack in Pensacola, Florida, but still can’t access the encrypted data on the device, Director Christopher Wray said Wednesday.

The disclosure came at a House Judiciary Committee hearing in response to questions from Republican Matt Gaetz of Florida. Wray said the FBI is “currently engaged with Apple hoping to see if we can get better help from them so we can get access to that phone.” About a month ago, the U.S. government asked Apple for help unlocking a pair of iPhones belonging to the shooter.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr and President Donald Trump have also demanded more help from Apple in the case. The Cupertino, California-based company has said it gave the FBI cloud data related to the iPhones, but has insisted that it won’t build a backdoor around encryption to access information on its devices.

“Backdoors can also be exploited by those who threaten our national security and the data security of our customers,” Apple said in early January.

While the government had been publicly pressing Apple to help it unlock the devices, experts in cybersecurity and digital forensics have believed that the agency has the ability to unlock the devices without Apple’s help, like it did with the phone belonging to the shooter behind an attack in San Bernardino, California, five years ago. Investigators can exploit a range of security vulnerabilities -- available directly or through providers such as Cellebrite and Grayshift -- to break into the phones, according to security experts.

The disclosure that the FBI still hasn’t been able to access encrypted data raises questions about the FBI’s attempts to break into the phone and could be designed to raise the pressure on Apple to provide additional assistance. Last month, Justice Department documents disclosed that the FBI was able to access data on an iPhone belonging to Lev Parnas, an indicted associate of Rudy Giuliani, in about two months. Parnas’s device is an iPhone 11, while the phones from the Pensacola case are an iPhone 5 and iPhone 7, which are easier to hack into.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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