FBI can't unlock the church shooter's phone

Devin Patrick Kelley, the man who murdered 26 people at a small church in Texas, had a cell phone which the FBI confiscated after his death. FBI Special Agent Christopher Combs said during a press conference today that the phone was taken to FBI headquarters in Quantico where investigators are trying to access it, but, at least so far, they have been unable to do so. The Hill reports:

“It actually highlights an issue that you’ve all heard about before with advance of the phones and the technology and the encryption, law enforcement, whether it’s at the state, local or the federal level, is increasingly not able to get into these phones,” Combs said at a press conference on Tuesday.

“I can assure you that we are working very hard to get into the phone and that will continue until we find an answer. I don’t know how long that is going to be,” Combs said. “It could be tomorrow, it could be a week, it could be a month.”

This became a big issue in 2016 when the Obama administration spent weeks trying to convince Apple to help them gain access to a phone belonging to San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizwan Farook. When negotiations with Apple broke down, a judge ordered Apple to open the phone but Apple refused. From the NY Times last February:

A federal magistrate judge, at the Justice Department’s request, ordered Apple to bypass security functions on the phone. The order set off a furious public battle on Wednesday between the Obama administration and one of the world’s most valuable companies in a dispute with far-reaching legal implications…

Mr. Cook, the chief executive at Apple, responded Wednesday morning with a blistering, 1,100-word letter to Apple customers, warning of the “chilling” breach of privacy posed by the government’s demands. He maintained that the order would effectively require it to create a “backdoor” to get around its own safeguards, and Apple vowed to appeal the ruling by next week.

“The same engineers who built strong encryption into the iPhone to protect our users would, ironically, be ordered to weaken those protections and make our users less safe,” Mr. Cook said.

Apple argues that the software the F.B.I. wants it to create does not exist. But technologists say the company can do it.

That last line is the real key. Apple’s position was that there was no backdoor to their software and therefore no way for them to comply except force their engineers to hack their own product. But there was some question whether that was true or if it just happened to be the best PR line for Apple to take in public. After all, revealing that the company can unlock any phone at will would set off all sorts of alarms for privacy advocates and also alert hackers that there is hidden way into the phones. From a business standpoint, it was better to claim that iPhone security is ironclad. The FBI became part of an ongoing real-life commercial for Apple’s security prowess. But that doesn’t mean Apple’s claims were true.

FBI agent Combs did not reveal to reporters what type of phone Devin Patrick Kelley had. It may be an iPhone or it could be another brand. Either way, it’s the same basic issue. Helping investigators access phones, even after death, even in cases of terrorism and mass murder, is a business problem for the big phone manufacturers. Just last week, Attorney General Sessions raised the issue during remarks he made in New York City:

“This failure to get encrypted information in a timely manner causes law enforcement to waste even more valuable time and resources,” Sessions said Thursday. “And it could have potentially deadly consequences.”

The attorney general spoke just days after eight people were killed in a terror attack in New York, which he said constituted “one more reminder of the dangerous threats that we face as a nation.”

“To investigate terrorism, we will need access to electronic evidence in a lawful way. Too often, technology companies refuse to cooperate with law enforcement or even to comply with court orders,” Sessions said.

Investigators say the shooting in Texas was a domestic situation and that the shooter had made prior threats against his mother-in-law by text message. That means his phone really may be a key part of understanding his motive for this crime. It’s easy to see why the FBI is frustrated at being unable to see what else is there.