SAN FRANCISCO – Apple is preparing privately for a legal fight with the Department of Justice to defend encryption on their iPhones while publicly trying to resolve the dispute, while the technology giant navigates an increasingly difficult line between its clients and the Trump administration.
Timothy D. Cook, Apple's chief executive officer, has brought together a handful of senior advisors, while Attorney General William P. Barr has pointed to the company and asked him to help penetrate two phones used by an armed man in a Deadly shooting last month at a naval air station in Pensacola, Florida.
Apple executives have been surprised by the rapid escalation of the case, people familiar with the company said they were not authorized to speak in public. And there is frustration and skepticism among some Apple team members working on the issue that the Justice Department has not spent enough time trying to enter iPhones with third-party tools, said a person with knowledge of the matter.
The situation has become a sudden crisis at Apple that faces Mr. Cook's long-standing commitment to protect people's privacy against accusations from the United States government that he is putting the public at risk. The case resembles Apple's clash with the F.B.I. in 2016 on the phone of another dead armed man, which lasted for months.
This time, Apple faces the Trump administration, which has been unpredictable. There is a lot at stake for Cook, who has forged an unusual alliance with President Trump that has helped Apple largely avoid harmful tariffs on the trade war with China That relationship will now be tested when Cook confronts Barr, one of the president’s closest allies.
"We are helping Apple all the time in TRADE and in many other matters, and yet they refuse to unlock phones used by murderers, drug dealers and other violent criminal elements," Trump said Tuesday. in a post on Twitter. "They will have to step forward and help our great country."
Apple declined to comment on the issue on Tuesday. Late Monday, after Mr. Barr complained that the company had not provided "substantive assistance" to gain access to the phones used in the Pensacola shooting, Apple said it rejected that characterization. He added that "encryption is vital to protect our country and the data of our users."
But Apple also offered a conciliatory language, in a sign that it did not want the confrontation to intensify. The company said it was working with F.B.I. in the case of Pensacola, with its engineers recently making a call to provide technical assistance.
"We will work tirelessly to help them investigate this tragic attack on our nation," Apple said.
At the heart of the fight is a debate between Apple and the government over whether security or privacy prevails over the other. Apple has said it chooses not to build a "backdoor" way for governments to enter iPhones and avoid encryption because that would create a slippery slope that could damage people's privacy.
The government has argued that it is not up to Apple to choose whether to provide help, since the Fourth Amendment allows the government to violate individual privacy in the interest of public safety. Privacy has never been an absolute right under the Constitution, Barr said. in a speech in October.
Mr. Cook publicly took a position on privacy in 2016 when Apple fought an F.B.I. Open the iPhone of an armed man involved in a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. The company said it could open the phone in a month, using a team of six to 10 engineers. But in a blistering letter of 1,100 words to Apple customers at the time, Cook warned that creating a way for authorities to have access to someone's iPhone "would undermine the freedoms and freedom that our government must protect."
Bruce Sewell, a former Apple general adviser who helped lead the company's response in the San Bernardino case, said in an interview last year that Cook had bet his reputation on the position. If Apple's board did not agree with the position, Cook was willing to resign, Sewell said.
The San Bernardino case was bitterly disputed by the government and Apple until a private company presented a way to get on the phone. Since then, Mr. Cook has made privacy one of Apple's core values. That has differentiated Apple from tech giants like Facebook and Google, who have faced scrutiny for aspiring people's data to sell ads.
"It's a brilliant marketing," said Apple Scott Galloway, a marketing professor at New York University who wrote a book about technology giants. "They are so worried about their privacy that they are willing to move their finger towards the F.B.I."
The small team of Mr. Cook at Apple now aims to direct the current situation towards an external resolution that does not imply that the company breaks its own security, even while preparing for a possible legal battle over the issue, people with knowledge said of the thought
Part of the frustration at Apple by the Department of Justice is rooted in how the police have exploited software failures to enter iPhones. Pensacola's gunman phones were an iPhone 5 and an iPhone 7 Plus, according to a person familiar with the investigation that declined to be identified because the details were confidential.
Those phones, launched in 2012 and 2016, lack Apple's most sophisticated encryption. The iPhone 5 is even older than the device in the San Bernardino case, which was an iPhone 5C.
Security researchers and a former senior Apple executive who spoke on condition of anonymity said the tools of at least two companies, Cellebrite and Grayshift, have been able to avoid encryption on those iPhone models.
Cellebrite said in an email that it helps "thousands of organizations worldwide to access and legally analyze" digital information; He declined to comment on an active investigation. Grayshift declined to comment.
The Cellebrite and Grayshift tools exploit flaws in the iPhone software that allows them to eliminate the limits of how many passwords can be tested before the device erases their data, the researchers said. Usually, iPhone allows 10 password attempts. Then, the tools use a so-called brute force attack, or repeated automated attempts of thousands of access codes, until one works.
"The iPhone 5 is so old that you have the guarantee that Grayshift and Cellebrite can enter them as easily as Apple," said Nicholas Weaver, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, who has taught iPhone security.
Chuck Cohen, who recently retired as head of the Indiana State Police efforts to enter encrypted devices, said his team used a $ 15,000 Grayshift device that allowed him to regularly access iPhones, particularly older ones. , although the tool did not always work. .
In the case of San Bernardino, the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Justice He later found the F.B.I. I hadn't tried every possible solution before trying to force Apple to unlock the phone. In the current case, Mr. Barr and other Justice Department officials have said they have exhausted all options, although they refused to detail exactly why third-party tools have failed on these phones while authorities seek to know if the man armed acted alone or coordinated with others.
"The technical experts of F.B.I., as well as those consulted outside the organization, have played an integral role in this investigation," said F.B.I. the spokeswoman said. "The consensus was reached, after all efforts to access the shooter's phones had not been successful, that the next step was to arrive to start a conversation with Apple."
The security researchers speculated that in the case of Pensacola, the F.B.I. I could still be trying a brute force attack to get into the phones. They said significant physical damage could have prevented third-party tools from opening the devices. Pensacola's gunman had shot iPhone 7 Plus once and tried to destroy iPhone 5, according to F.B.I. Photos
The F.B.I. He said he arranged the iPhones in a laboratory to turn them on, but authorities still could not circumvent their encryption. Security researchers and the former Apple executive said that any damage that prevented the operation of third-party tools would also impede an Apple solution.
A Justice Department spokeswoman said in an email: “Apple designed these phones and implemented their encryption. It's a simple "gateway" request: will Apple help us get into the shooter's phones or not? "
While Apple has Closed loopholes that the police have used to enter their devices and resisted some requests for police access, have also routinely helped the police obtain information from the phones in cases that do not require that the encryption be broken. Apple has conducted seminars for police departments on how to quickly access a suspect's phone, and has a hotline and dedicated team to help police in urgent cases.
In the past seven years, Apple has also complied with approximately 127,000 requests from US law enforcement agencies for data stored on its computer servers. These data are not encrypted and access is possible without the client access code.
In 2016, when the confrontation between Apple and the government was more bitter, Cook said Congress should pass a law to decide the boundaries between public safety and technological security. In court filings, Apple even identified an applicable law, the Communications Assistance Law for Law Enforcement.
On Monday, Mr. Barr said the Trump administration had revived talks with Congress to develop such a law.
Jack Nicas reported from San Francisco, and Katie Benner from Washington.