FBI director Chris Wray said the agency has an “Apple problem.”

Angela Lang/CNET

The Justice Department is criticizing Apple again for refusing to help with its investigation, arguing that it had to figure out how to unlock a terrorists’ iPhone without the tech giant’s help. The public callout is the latest in the FBI’s long battle with tech companies over encryption. 

On Monday, the Justice Department held a press conference stating that the FBI successfully unlocked the iPhones belonging to the terrorist behind the shooting at the Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida. 

Details on the iPhones revealed links to the terrorist group Al Qaeda and evidence gathered from the devices lead to counterterrorism actions in Yemen, the Justice Department said. Despite being able to unlock the iPhones on their own, attorney general William Barr remained critical of Apple for declining to help and slammed tech companies for protecting encryption. 

“Thanks to the great work of the FBI — and no thanks to Apple — we were able to unlock Alshamrani’s phones,” Barr said at a press conference on Monday. “The bottom line: our national security cannot remain in the hands of big corporations who put dollars over lawful access and public safety. The time has come for a legislative solution.” 

The Justice Department has consistently called for tech companies to break their own encryptions for criminal investigations, arguing that the security provides cover for terrorists, drug dealers and pedophiles. 

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Tech companies, including Apple, Facebook and Google, have argued that the same protection keeps millions of people safe from hackers and criminals, as well as political dissidents in oppressive countries. 

Experts on encryption have also pointed out that if companies oblige and create “lawful access” that can only be used in criminal investigations, it would create a vulnerability that hackers could potentially exploit. 

Apple referred to a statement it made in January, when the Justice Department and President Trump first called out the company over refusing to break its encryption. 

“We reject the characterization that Apple has not provided substantive assistance in the Pensacola investigation. Our responses to their many requests since the attack have been timely, thorough and are ongoing,” Apple said in its January statement. “We have always maintained there is no such thing as a backdoor just for the good guys. Backdoors can also be exploited by those who threaten our national security and the data security of our customers.”

FBI director Chris Wray took issue with Apple’s stance on encryption, despite the fact that the agency found methods to unlock the device with its own technical expertise. He argued that developing this technique diverted resources from the FBI for months and hampered its investigation. 

“Unfortunately, the technique that we developed is not a fix for our broader Apple problem. It’s of pretty limited application. But it has made a huge difference in this investigation,” Wray said at the press conference. 

US lawmakers have been looking at legislation that would force tech companies to comply with “lawful access” requests — essentially creating a backdoor for investigators to unlock devices with. 

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