Apple Offered Help In Unlocking Texas Shooter's iPhone, But It May Now Be Too Late

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has been unable to access data on a locked smartphone that belonged to Devin Patrick Kelly, the individual who opened fire in a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, leaving 26 people dead and several others injured. In a subsequent press release, the FBI identified the handset as an iPhone and said it had not been able to access the data on it. Unfortunately, it might be too late to do anything about it.

"They're in the process of looking at the phone," Christopher Combs, the special agent leading the investigation, told reporters earlier this week. "Unfortunately, at this time, we are unable to get into that phone."

Apple iPhone

Apple reached out to the FBI after it saw the press conference and learned that the shooter owned an iPhone, but it may be decidedly more difficult to crack into the handset now than it would have been had the FBI contacted Apple in the first place. There are certain security measures on iPhone devices that require prompt attention by law enforcement, when the need arises. One of them is the fingerprint scanner. The fingerprint sensor (Touch ID) on iPhone devices does not work if it has not been used in the past 48 hours. Had the FBI contacted Apple within the first couple of days after the shooting, Apple could have instructed the agency to use Kelly's finger or a copy of his fingerprint to unlock the handset. That is no longer an option, it appears.

"Our team immediately reached out to the FBI after learning from their press conference on Tuesday that investigators were trying to access a mobile phone. We offered assistance and said we would expedite our response to any legal process they send us," an Apple representative said in a statement. "We work with law enforcement every day. We offer training to thousands of agents so they understand our devices and how they can quickly request information from Apple."

The situation is reminiscent of the San Bernardino shooting in which the FBI was in possession of the dead terrorist's iPhone device. It had sought help from Apple in cracking the handset, but Apple refused to work on a method that would break the phone's encrypting, saying that developing such a backdoor would leave millions of iPhone devices vulnerable. The FBI initially tried to legally compel Apple to assist with cracking the phone, but Apple resisted, and the FBI eventually enlisted the help of a third-party.

Encryption remains a point of contention between the FBI and companies like Apple and Google. The FBI would like Apple and others to build backdoors that would allow officials to easily access data on a locked phone, as that data can contain valuable information about a shooter's motive and other potential targets. However, backdoors by their nature come at the expense of security and user privacy, which is why Apple, Google, and others have resisted.