May 19, 2020 - Technology

DOJ and Apple reignite dispute over encryption

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

The long-simmering debate over encryption has come to a boil once more, as Attorney General Bill Barr again attacked Apple on the issue and a leading Senate encryption critic now has law enforcement looking to get into his own device. 

The big picture: Although they're not viable in all cases, there are a number of ways for law enforcement to get suspects' data. That, however, hasn't stopped pressure on companies like Apple to build backdoors to let law enforcement access encrypted devices.

Driving the news:

What they're saying: At a Monday news conference announcing the FBI's findings in the Pensacola case, Barr took Apple to task.

  • “We asked Apple for assistance and so did the President,” he said. “Unfortunately, Apple would not help us unlock the phones. Apple had deliberately designed them so that only the user — in this case, the terrorist — could gain access to their contents.”
  • “There is no such thing as a back door just for the good guys, and the American people do not have to choose between weakening encryption and effective investigations,” Apple said in a statement.
  • In their own statement, the Center for Democracy & Technology, the Internet Society and Global Partners Digital said, “The Department of Justice has demonstrated again that it can access devices protected by strong encryption. It just has to expend the resources to do so.”

Flashback: The Pensacola case is the second recent case where the FBI has lashed out at Apple for not helping break its encryption — and was nonetheless able to get data off the phone. (The first, in 2016, involved the San Bernardino shooting.)

Be smart: Apple offers end-to-end encryption on the iPhone, meaning that no one, including both law enforcement and criminals, can access a device's contents without having its passcode.

  • However, those who back up their devices to Apple's iCloud leave Apple with data that it will provide if ordered by a court.

As for Burr, it's possible that the FBI, in seizing his phone, may be moving quickly to take advantage of its current access to newer iPhones. Apple is known for closing the loopholes that Greyshift and others use, creating a perennial cat-and-mouse game.

  • Ironically, Burr has been among the Senate's harshest critics of encryption. And yet law enforcement may be able to get the data it wants without Apple having to weaken encryption.

What's next: The encryption debate isn't going away, but it's unlikely to be settled any time soon, either. Both sides feel they're right, but both also seem reluctant to ask a court to decide the matter.

Go deeper