Justice Department Attempts To Blame Encryption for Terrorist Attack Feds Failed To See Coming
When a Saudi Arabian man named Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani opened fire at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida, in December 2019, killing three and injuring eight, the FBI assumed (correctly) it was an act of terrorism.
Alshamrani, who was 21 and a lieutenant in the Royal Saudi Air Force, was at a training program sponsored by the Pentagon in an agreement with Saudi Arabia. A subsequent investigation by both the United States and Saudi Arabia would show that Alshamrani may have been radicalized by Al Qaeda as far back as 2015 and had been tweeting out angry comments against the United States and Israel prior to the attack. That information started coming to light less than a week after the attack, raising questions about whether the American government had done a bad job vetting Alshamrani before letting him into the United States to train.
But Alshamrani also had two iPhones that were locked (which the FBI couldn’t get access to upon his death), so instead of focusing on what intelligence failures allowed for Alshamrani to enter the United States, the Justice Department is instead continuing its attack on encryption. Immediately after the attack, FBI got a warrant to search Alshamrani’s phones and they approached Apple, asking for help breaking into them. Apple reportedly gave the FBI access to data that the man had stored on his iCloud, but as has been their practice for years now, their encryption system doesn’t give Apple the ability to bypass it and the company would not assist in breaking into the phones.
This has been a sticking point between Apple (and other tech companies) and the Justice Department for years now. Strong encryption is vital to protecting everybody’s data privacy from criminals and any other bad actors with malicious intent (like authoritarian governments and spies). Criminals and terrorists, of course, can also use encryption to prevent their conversations and plans from being detected by police who might stop them. Any tool can be used for good and bad purposes.
This fight is back in the news this week because the Justice Department revealed on Monday that it had finally managed to break into Alshamrani’s phone without Apple’s help. This should be good news, but it’s clear that the FBI and Department of Justice have decided that they’re going to continue using this case to try to attack end-to-end encryption and attempt to force tech companies to install virtua
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