The FBI was able to break the encryption on iPhones belonging to the shooter in December’s attack at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida, and discovered he had contact with a suspected al-Qaida operative, according to a person familiar with the development.
Success getting into the phones heads off a confrontation — at least for now — with Apple Inc. in a continuing fight that pits the needs of law enforcement against the privacy of phone users.
The alleged link to al-Qaida is also significant because it suggests the terrorist organization is still able to encourage, and possibly direct, operations in the U.S. almost two decades after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. The FBI’s discoveries were reported earlier Monday by CNN.
The Trump administration asked Apple in January for help unlocking a pair of iPhones belonging to the shooter, Mohammed Alshamrani, a 21-year-old 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Saudi Air Force. Alshamrani was killed by law enforcement responding to the attack.
Attorney General William Barr, who has scheduled a news conference Monday to discuss the case, previously said the the shooting rampage that killed three sailors was an act of terrorism. The attack frayed U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia, which removed 21 of its cadets from military training in the U.S. in response.
FBI Director Christopher Wray told lawmakers in February the bureau had reconstructed an iPhone belonging to the shooter but still couldn’t access the encrypted data on the device.
Apple had said it gave the FBI cloud data it held related to the iPhones, but the Cupertino, California-based company insisted that it won’t build a backdoor around encryption to access information on its devices.
While the government had been publicly pressing Apple to help it unlock the devices, experts in cybersecurity and digital forensics say the FBI has shown it has the ability to unlock the devices when necessary without Apple’s help, as it did with the phone belonging to the shooter behind an attack in San Bernardino, California, five years ago.
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