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Cotton Blasts Apple for Closing iPhone Security Loophole Used by Law Enforcement to Access Devices

'Criminals and terrorists should never take precedence over the safety of the American people'

Tim Cook, chief executive officer of Apple / Getty Images
• June 14, 2018 2:11 pm

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Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) on Thursday castigated Apple for closing a technological loophole that law enforcement agencies used to get information from locked iPhones, suggesting that the tech giant's decision gives precedence to "criminals and terrorists" over "the safety of the American people."

"If Apple is willing to store Chinese customers' data on a state-owned firm's servers, then it should be more than willing to cooperate with valid warrants from U.S. law enforcement," Cotton said. "Criminals and terrorists should never take precedence over the safety of the American people."

Cotton's statement came after the New York Times reported that "Apple said it was planning an iPhone software update that would effectively disable the phone's charging and data port—the opening where users plug in headphones, power cables, and adapters—an hour after the phone is locked."

"While a phone can still be charged," the Times added, "a person would first need to enter the phone's password to transfer data to or from the device using the port."

Apple's planned update would hinder law enforcement officials' efforts to open locked iPhones to help with cases. Authorities have connected another device running special software to the port to access information on the phones. The Indiana State Police, for example, used a $15,000 device it bought in March from a company called Grayshift to unlock 96 iPhones for various cases this year, each time with a warrant.

"If we go back to the situation where we again don't have access, now we know directly all the evidence we've lost and all the kids we can't put into a position of safety," said Chuck Cohen, who leads an Indiana State Police task force on internet crimes against children.

Apple spokesman Fred Sainz told the Times that the update is meant to protect customers from criminals who use the same techniques as law enforcement to access others' iPhones.

"We have the greatest respect for law enforcement, and we don't design our security improvements to frustrate their efforts to do their jobs," he said.

Apple's decision follows clashes between the company and law enforcement over accessing iPhones.

Apple created iPhones as secure devices that only their owners can open, but that position has conflicted with law enforcement agencies, which have sought to access them for information relevant to ongoing cases.

The issue came to a head in the aftermath of the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, in December 2015, when a married couple shot and killed 14 people. The FBI could not access the gunman's iPhone and asked for Apple's help. When Apple refused, a federal judge ordered the company to help the FBI open the phone. Apple still chose not to cooperate, with CEO Tim Cook releasing a letter that read, "The implications of the government's demands are chilling."

Eventually, the FBI circumvented Apple and found a third party to get into the phone, paying the undisclosed group $1.3 million. Since then, law enforcement agencies around the U.S. have used private companies—mainly Cellebrite, an Israeli forensics firm, and Grayshift, which was founded by a former Apple engineer in 2016—to access locked iPhones, generally using the technological loophole that Apple has moved to close.

Critics of Apple's refusal to cooperate with law enforcement, like Cotton, have noted that the company has complied with local laws that conflict with its rhetoric in favor of users' privacy. In China, for example, Apple now stores its Chinese customers' data on state-run servers because of a new law there.

Many of these critics have slammed Apple in recent months for taking several steps in China that they say are meant to appease the country's communist government.

Published under: Apple, Tom Cotton