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Apple says it aided Florida shooting inquiry, but won't unlock gunman's phone

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Apple says it aided Florida shooting inquiry, but won't unlock gunman's phone
People gather around by the Apple brand logo near the Apple Store in Grand Central Station in New York City on October 25, 2016. U.S. Apple's (AAPL) September-quarter earnings are due out after the market closes today. Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo

Jan. 14 (UPI) -- Technology giant Apple said it won't cooperate with a request from the U.S. Department of Justice to unlock smartphones used by gunman Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani in an attack last month at a military base in the Florida Panhandle.

Investigators have been trying to gain access to Alshamrani's phones to look for clues, but can't get past the devices' security. The department asked Apple for help, later saying the company hadn't offered "substantive assistance."

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Tuesday, Apple disputed the department's assessment of the situation.

"We reject the characterization that Apple has not provided substantive assistance in the Pensacola investigation," the company said in a statement. "Our responses to their many requests since the attack have been timely, thorough and are ongoing."

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Apple said short of unlocking the phones, it has cooperated with federal investigators.

"Within hours of the FBI's first request on Dec. 6, we produced a wide variety of information associated with the investigation," it said.

Alshamrani, of the Royal Saudi Air Force, killed three U.S. sailors and injured eight others in the assault at Naval Air Station Pensacola on Dec. 6. U.S. Attorney General William Barr said the shooting qualified as an "act of terrorism" and that Alshamrani was moved by "jihadist ideology."

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Barr said Monday the Cupertino, Calif., company hadn't provided investigators with a way to get into Alshamrani's phones.

"This situation perfectly illustrates why it is critical that investigators be able to get access to digital evidence once they have obtained a court order based on probable cause," he said. "We call on Apple and other technology companies to help us find a solution so that we can better protect the lives of Americans and prevent future attacks."

Apple said it wouldn't provide investigators with a "backdoor" into Alshamrani's phone -- the same position it took when asked by the FBI in 2016 to help them gain access to encrypted files in the shooter's phone after a San Bernardino, Calif., attack that killed 14 people.

"We have always maintained there is no such thing as a backdoor just for the good guys," Apple said. "Backdoors can also be exploited by those who threaten our national security and the data security of our customers.

"Today, law enforcement has access to more data than ever before in history, so Americans do not have to choose between weakening encryption and solving investigations. We feel strongly encryption is vital to protecting our country and our users' data."

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Twenty-one Saudi Royal Air Force cadets were removed from the training program following the Pensacola attack.

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