The FBI is asking Apple to help unlock two iPhones that investigators think were owned by Mohamed Saeed Alshamrani, the man accused in last month’s shooting attack at the Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida that killed three people.
In a letter sent late Monday to Apple’s general counsel, the FBI said that although it has court permission to search the contents of the phones, both are password-protected. “Investigators are actively engaging in efforts to ‘guess’ the relevant passcodes but so far have been unsuccessful.”
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The letter, from FBI General Counsel Dana Boente, said officials have sought help from other federal agencies as well as experts in foreign countries and “familiar contacts in the third-party vendor community.” That may be a reference to the still-undisclosed vendor that helped the FBI open the locked phone of Syed Farook, the gunman who attacked a city meeting in San Bernardino, California, in 2015. The Justice Department took Apple to court after the company refused to help the FBI open that phone.
A spokesman for Apple on Monday pointed to a letter the company sent to its customers during the legal battle over the San Bernardino phone. It said complying with the FBI’s demand would require producing a new version of the iPhone operating system. If that software fell into the wrong hands, it “would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession.”
A law enforcement official said there’s an additional problem with one of the iPhones thought to belong to Alshamrani: He apparently fired a round into the phone during the shooting attack, further complicating efforts to unlock it.
Another official said Alshamrani, a member of the Saudi Arabian air force who was taking flight training, apparently acted alone in the shooting but cautioned that the investigation is not complete.
Attorney General William Barr said last month in an NBC News interview that the Pensacola shooting “appeared to be” an act of terrorism, but officials have not yet formally offered any conclusion. “Even though the shooter is dead,” the FBI letter said, agents want to search its contents “out of an abundance of caution.”
According to the letter, the iPhones were sent to the FBI’s crime lab in Quantico, Virginia. “We stand ready from a logistical standpoint to do whatever is needed of us to work with Apple in effectuating the court’s order.”