By Eric Lieberman
The FBI announced Tuesday that it has so far been unable to decrypt the phone of the gunman who killed 26 people in a Texas church.
The federal agency’s struggle to retrieve the encrypted data from the smartphone is highly similar to another situation from December 2015 in which authorities at first couldn’t unlock the phone of Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the perpetrators in the Sen Bernardino mass shooting. Encryption is the process of transforming data into complex codes to automatically lock the information and essentially obstruct unauthorized access.
The battle over encryption may materialize yet again due to the FBI’s apparent incapacity to unlock at least parts of the mobile device of 26-year-old Devin Kelley, who shot up the church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.
“Unfortunately, at this time, we are unable to get into that phone,” Christopher Combs, an FBI special agent who heads the San Antonio division, said at a press conference. “So it actually highlights an issue that you’ve all heard before with the advance of the technology and the phone and the encryptions, law enforcement whether it’s at the state, local, or the federal level is increasingly not able to get into these phones.”
Combs said officials are still trying their hardest, but wouldn’t describe what exact kind of phone it is “because I don’t want to tell every bad guy out there what phone to buy, to harass our efforts on trying to find justice here.”
Most smartphones employ encryption, so it likely wouldn’t encourage evildoers one way or the other. Nevertheless, if it’s an iPhone, then the FBI won’t get help from Apple.
Former FBI Director James Comey pressured Apple CEO Tim Cook to help law enforcement officials gain access to the Farook’s iPhone, but Cook declined. He argued in a letter to customers that creating software for a back door is far “too dangerous to create,” and extremely counterproductive since it would inevitably allow bad actors access to people’s data.
“The FBI may use different words to describe this tool, but make no mistake: Building a version of iOS that bypasses security in this way would undeniably create a backdoor,” Cook wrote in February 2016, referencing how it ignores the basics of digital security. “And while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control.”
The FBI eventually gained access to Farook’s smartphone without Apple’s help.
At the time of the San Bernardino shooting, 51 percent of people thought that Apple should unlock the iPhone, 38 percent of people felt that Apple should not, and 11 percent were unsure, according to a Pew survey.
But that sentiment seemed to shift once the dust settled.
Americans, according to another Pew survey in January, were split on whether police should be able to force people to unlock their smartphones — possibly showing that in roughly the following year, more people started to understand the nuances of encryption and how ubiquitous and critical it is in society.