Apple Inc dropped plans to let iPhone users fully encrypt backups of their devices in the company’s iCloud service after the FBI complained that the move would harm investigations, six sources familiar with the matter told Reuters.
The tech giant’s reversal, about two years ago, has not previously been reported. It shows how much Apple has been willing to help U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies, despite taking a harder line in high-profile legal disputes with the government and casting itself as a defender of its customers’ information.
The long-running tug of war between investigators’ concerns about security and tech companies’ desire for user privacy moved back into the public spotlight last week, as U.S. Attorney General William Barr took the rare step of publicly calling on Apple to unlock two iPhones used by a Saudi Air Force officer who shot dead three Americans at a Pensacola, Florida naval base last month.
U.S. President Donald Trump piled on, accusing Apple on Twitter of refusing to unlock phones used by “killers, drug dealers and other violent criminal elements.” Republican and Democratic senators sounded a similar theme in a December hearing, threatening legislation against end-to-end encryption, citing unrecoverable evidence of crimes against children.
Apple did in fact did turn over the shooter’s iCloud backups in the Pensacola case, and said it rejected the characterization that it “has not provided substantive assistance.”
Behind the scenes, Apple (AAPL) has provided the FBI with more sweeping help, not related to any specific probe.
An Apple spokesman declined to comment on the company’s handling of the encryption issue or any discussions it has had with the FBI. The FBI did not respond to requests for comment on any discussions with Apple.
More than two years ago, Apple told the FBI that it planned to offer users end-to-end encryption when storing their phone data on iCloud, according to one current and three former FBI officials and one current and one former Apple employee.
Under that plan, primarily designed to thwart hackers, Apple would no longer have a key to unlock the encrypted data, meaning it would not be able to turn material over to authorities in a readable form even under court order.
In private talks with Apple soon after, representatives of the FBI’s cyber crime agents and its operational technology division objected to the plan, arguing it would deny them the most effective means for gaining evidence against iPhone-using suspects, the government sources said.
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