The FBI Just Unlocked an iPhone Without Apple's Help

What does the FBI's success mean for your iPhone?

If the FBI actually cracked Apple's security on a pair of phones used in a terrorist attack, it's good for justice, but could be a problem for everyone else's iPhones.

Sign outside Pensacola Naval Air Station
Josh Brasted / Getty Images

The FBI finally succeeded in unlocking a pair of iPhones reportedly owned by a suspected terrorist who killed three at a Naval base in Florida before being killed himself.

What happened: Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, the man whom authorities believe carried out an attack on the Naval Air Station in Pensacola Florida in December, tried to destroy the phones (he shot one of them). Authorities asked for Apple's help in unlocking the phones. The company handed over whatever iCloud data it could, but refused to help the FBI unlock the devices.

A breakthrough: Now, however, the FBI announced on Monday that after months of work by their computer scientists, the FBI was able to access the phones and find valuable evidence that tied Alshamrani directly to the al Qaeda terrorist group.

Missing details: While the FBI published some iPhone Notes app documents from Alshamrani's phone, it did not say if it cracked the iPhone's security or encryption. It also has never specified what kinds of iPhones they recovered, which means it's unclear the kind of security data it might have needed (fingerprint, FaceID, PIN) to access the phone.

Is Apple's iPhone security compromised? It's unlikely that the FBI could access other iPhones in the same way. In a statement, the FBI called the hack "of limited application," and not a fix for "its broader Apple problem," which is likely a reference to FBI long-standing demand for some kind of law enforcement back door into Apple's iPhone security and encryption.

Apple's say: Apple sent this statement to Lifewire:

The terrorist attack on members of the US armed services at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida was a devastating and heinous act. Apple responded to the FBI's first requests for information just hours after the attack on December 6, 2019 and continued to support law enforcement during their investigation. We provided every piece of information available to us, including iCloud backups, account information and transactional data for multiple accounts, and we lent continuous and ongoing technical and investigative support to FBI offices in Jacksonville, Pensacola and New York over the months since.
On this and many thousands of other cases, we continue to work around-the-clock with the FBI and other investigators who keep Americans safe and bring criminals to justice. As a proud American company, we consider supporting law enforcement’s important work our responsibility. The false claims made about our company are an excuse to weaken encryption and other security measures that protect millions of users and our national security.
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.
Customers count on Apple to keep their information secure and one of the ways in which we do so is by using strong encryption across our devices and servers. We sell the same iPhone everywhere, we don’t store customers’ passcodes and we don’t have the capacity to unlock passcode-protected devices. In data centers, we deploy strong hardware and software security protections to keep information safe and to ensure there are no backdoors into our systems. All of these practices apply equally to our operations in every country in the world. 

Bottom line: There's no question that Americans want the FBI to protect it from ongoing and potential terrorists attacks. The question is, can the FBI do its job while allowing consumers to maintain the strict privacy protections Apple promises its customers? In this instance, FBI may have threaded the needle: gotten crucial evidence on a terrorist plot that could help it prevent future attacks, but also developed technology that, it claims, cannot be used for everyone else's iPhone.

Updated on 5-18-2020 at 3:30 PM ET with a statement from Apple.

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