National Security

Naval Air Station Pensacola shooter worked with al-Qaeda

That data was long in coming because of Apple's refusal to aid in the unlocking of his cell phone.

Saudi Air Force officer Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, who killed three Americans at a December 2019 terrorist attack at Naval Air Station Pensacola, secretly plotted and planned his attack with Islamist terror group al-Qaeda. The U.S. Department of Justice has come to this conclusion by reviewing communications from the attacker’s cell phone. But there’s the rub.

The Saudi officer had an iPhone and Apple refused to help law enforcement unlock the phone. That wasted valuable time in the investigation of the shooting, time that gave possible fellow conspirators the opportunity to ditch vital data and run for cover. FBI tech personnel later unlocked the phone. Attorney General Bill Barr is not happy with Apple’s attitude and said so at a press conference on Monday.

“We now have a clearer understanding of Alshamrani’s associations and activities in the years, months and days leading up to his attack,” Barr said at the news conference, where he criticized Apple for not helping open the phones. “In cases like this, where the user is a terrorist, or in other cases, where the user is a violent criminal, a human trafficker, a child predator, Apple’s decision has dangerous consequences for public safety and the national security and is, in my judgment, unacceptable.”

Apple soon responded and said it had provided the FBI with “every piece of information available to us, including iCloud backups, account information and transactional data for multiple accounts. It is because we take our responsibility to national security so seriously that we do not believe in the creation of a backdoor — one which will make every device vulnerable to bad actors who threaten our national security and the data security of our customers. There is no such thing as a backdoor just for the good guys, and the American people do not have to choose between weakening encryption and effective investigations.”

The controversy brings up once again the choice between individual privacy and national security, between dangerous freedom and a secure domestic environment. The federal government had every right to request aid in their probe from Apple. There was a clear and imminent danger from this attacker and his sponsors. The bleatings over civil liberties from Apple would turn to ashes in the mouth of anyone who has ever lost a loved one in a terrorist attack.

However, no environment can be completely safe. And do we really want government, especially with the FBI’s current track record, to have the ability to peer into the most private aspects of our lives through our cell phone communications?

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An obvious compromise would be to set up a FISA-like court to judge such questions. But in the Carter Page case we’ve seen how easily an actual FISA court can go astray. And according to Apple, there is no back door to the phone to open anyway. Though interestingly, the FBI did manage to do it, albeit late.

If the FBI could do it here couldn’t they do it again and perhaps with other phones? Is the FBI asking for help with a problem they have already solved? There will be other cases of personal liberties versus national security. Though it is tempting to err on the side of security, this is a free nation and that freedom is chiefly from intrusive government actions. It is at the core of the American ethos that it stays that way.

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