Trump attacks Apple in push to weaken encryption

The president's remarks come after the Justice Department publicly called for the tech giant to help unlock a gunman's iPhones.

Alfred Ng Senior Reporter / CNET News
Alfred Ng was a senior reporter for CNET News. He was raised in Brooklyn and previously worked on the New York Daily News's social media and breaking news teams.
Alfred Ng
3 min read

President Donald Trump and Apple CEO Tim Cook visit a manufacturing facility in Austin, Texas, in November. 

Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

President Donald Trump weighed in Tuesday on a reignited battle over encryption, calling out Apple for refusing to create backdoors that would help law enforcement agencies unlock iPhones. 

Just a day after the Department of Justice and Attorney General William Barr criticized the tech giant for a lack of "substantive help" in its investigation of a deadly shooting at a Florida Naval base, the president is now adding to the pressure on Apple. 

Watch this: The Trump administration and Apple are set for a new battle on encryption

In a tweet Tuesday, Trump wrote, "We are helping Apple all of the time on TRADE and so many other issues, and yet they refuse to unlock phones used by killers, drug dealers and other violent criminal elements."

He called for Apple to "step up to the plate" and help the US government in its investigation.
Apple declined to comment on Trump's remarks. On Monday, the company said it rejected the Justice Department's characterization that it hasn't been helping with the investigation. 

The company said it's provided the FBI information on the gunman's iPhone, including account information, iCloud backups and transactional data for several accounts associated with the device. 

Apple also said that it didn't receive requests about a second iPhone in the investigation until Jan. 8. While it's able to provide all that data for investigations, Apple remains steadfast that it won't create a backdoor to encryption to help with investigations. 

"We have always maintained there is no such thing as a backdoor just for the good guys," Apple said in a statement sent Monday. "Backdoors can also be exploited by those who threaten our national security and the data security of our customers." 

While Apple is trying to publicly mitigate the dispute, the company is also reportedly preparing for a possible legal battle with the Justice Department to defend encryption on its iPhones. Executives as the company were surprised by the case's quick escalation, according to The New York Times, and some at Apple have expressed skepticism that the FBI has exhausted its third-party tools to access the iPhones. 

The American Civil Liberties Union criticized the president's demand as "dangerous and unconstitutional," adding that complying would result in weaker security for all iPhones.

"Strong encryption enables religious minorities facing genocide, like the Uyghurs in China, and journalists investigating powerful drug cartels in Mexico, to communicate safely with each other, knowledgeable sources, and the outside world," the ACLU said in a statement.

"There is simply no way for Apple, or any other company, to provide the FBI access to encrypted communications without also providing it to authoritarian foreign governments and weakening our defenses against criminals and hackers."  

Trump has called Apple out over the same issue in the past -- as a candidate running for president in 2016. After Apple refused to create a backdoor to encryption to unlock an iPhone belonging to terrorists behind the San Bernardino shooting, Trump called for a boycott of the company

While the FBI was eventually able to unlock the iPhone without Apple's help, the Justice Department has continued its push to weaken encryption standards for its investigations. 

On multiple occasions, governments have lamented that their investigations are stalled because of encryption, and continue to ask tech companies to compromise on their user security and privacy in the name of public safety. 

Along with Apple, companies like Facebook, Google and Microsoft have stood firm against those governments, warning that weakening encryption would endanger billions of people and devices.

At a Senate hearing in December, lawmakers issued a stern warning to tech companies: Find a way to work with law enforcement on investigations, or there will be legislation regulating encryption soon. 

Originally published Jan. 14.
Update, Jan. 15: Adds that Apple is reportedly preparing for legal battle.