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Is the FBI Gearing Up for Another Encryption Fight with Apple?

In the wake of the 2015 San Bernardino shooting, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation tried to pressure Apple into decrypting the shooter’s phone and even went so far as to demand that Apple install a backdoor in all iPhones (see “The FBI’s War on Encryption Continues,” 10 December 2015). Apple resisted, and Tim Cook even authored an open letter about the disadvantages of such an approach (see “Thoughts on Tim Cook’s Open Letter Criticizing Backdoors,” 17 February 2016). Eventually, the FBI resolved the situation by hiring hackers to break into the iPhone (see “FBI Hired Hackers to Unlock San Bernardino iPhone,” 13 April 2016).

Now it looks like the FBI is at it again. The Washington Post reports that the FBI is pressuring Apple to decrypt the iPhone used by the man who killed three people at a naval base in Pensacola, Florida, in December 2019. Apple said that it has already shared relevant data from cloud storage, but that it can’t access the encrypted data on the iPhone.

As Daring Fireball’s John Gruber points out, thanks to the Secure Enclave in iPhones and iPads, as well as the T2 security chip in Macs, Apple has no way to decrypt data on the devices it sells. And of course, if Apple were to put in a backdoor for the FBI, it would be impossible to prevent it from being accessible to bad actors. Gruber suspects that the FBI is fully aware of this and that the agency’s request to Apple is more about turning public opinion against unbreakable encryption so that it will become politically feasible to outlaw it.

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