Two weeks ago today, 26 people were killed by a gunman at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. Two phones were discovered at the scene: older push-button LG and what local news described as a “blood spattered” Apple iPhone SE. Now local law enforcement has served Apple with a search warrant in order to retrieve information from the smartphone.
The news has echoes of a recent spat between Apple and the FBI over a mass shooting in San Bernadino, California, in late 2015. Apple appears to have been proactive this time around. The Tuesday following the murders, the FBI held a press conference noting the existence of one of two phones, without revealing the make, as it didn’t want to “tell every bad guy out there what phone to buy.”
Shortly after The Washington Post reported that the mystery handset was indeed an iPhone, Apple reached out to law enforcement, offering technical assistance in getting onto the device. The company, it seems, could have provided help early on, without much legal wrangling or more software controversial backdoors.
For one thing, as morbid as it may be, TouchID (unlike FaceID, apparently) can be used to unlock a phone even after the owner of a fingerprint has died. In spite of issuing a warrant dated November 9 (two days after the press conference), however, an Apple spokesperson has since confirmed with TechCrunch that as of this writing, law enforcement has yet to contact the company for technical assistance in helping unlock the device.
The offer is likely still on the table, if law enforcement is willing to accept. Apple no doubt would like to be in a position of assisting in uncovering a potential motive or other useful information without having to employee the encryption-breaking tactics that were asked of the company in the wake of San Bernadino. After that event, Tim Cook issued an open letter, stating,
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. And while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control.
In that case, the FBI ultimately withdrew its court order, after discovering an alternative method for unlocking the device. Given the assistance Apple could potentially offer up, having to create an exploitable backdoor could perhaps be avoided once again.