William Barr, the US attorney-general, accused Apple of double-standards on Monday for working with authoritarian regimes while refusing to help the Department of Justice unlock iPhones.
The broadside came as Mr Barr announced that FBI technicians had finally accessed two iPhones used by the Saudi air force officer who killed three Americans in December at a US naval base in Pensacola, Florida.
Mr Barr said the phones contained evidence linking the Pensacola shooter, Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, to al-Qaeda and strongly criticised Apple for failing to assist, even after a personal appeal by Donald Trump, the US president.
“If technology companies like Apple are willing to oblige the demands of authoritarian regimes, they certainly have no excuse for failing to co-operate with rule-of-law nations that respect civil liberties and privacy rights, and have judicial safeguards,” said Mr Barr during a virtual news conference.
The attorney-general cited media reports that Apple had complied with demands by China and Russia to open data centers in those countries “to enable bulk surveillance by those governments”.
He also accused Apple of “facilitating censorship and oppression” by disabling features and removing applications used by pro-democracy advocates. Last year, Apple pulled an app used by Hong Kong protesters to track police movements.
The comments were the most forceful yet in an ongoing campaign by Mr Barr to pressure Apple and other technology companies to give law enforcement agencies access to encrypted devices when authorised by a court.
Technology companies have increasingly created privacy-focused products intended to thwart access by anyone other than their user, whether hackers or governments wielding search warrants.
“Many of the companies that advocate most loudly for warrant-proof encryption in the name of privacy rights are at the same time willing to accommodate authoritarian regimes when it suits their business interests,” said Mr Barr. He said legislation was needed to force companies to give the government a way to access encrypted devices.
In a statement, Apple said it had given investigators “every piece of information available to us” and had “lent continuous and ongoing technical and investigative support”.
“The false claims made about our company are an excuse to weaken encryption and other security measures that protect millions of users and our national security,” the statement said.
Apple added that its strong encryption practices “apply equally to our operations in every country in the world”.
The controversy over the Pensacola shooter’s phone is not the first time the justice department and Apple have sparred over iPhone access. In 2016, the US government sued Apple over an iPhone owned by a gunman in a shooting in San Bernardino, California, but later dropped the case after obtaining access with the help of a third-party company.
Christopher Wray, the director of the FBI, said on Monday that this time no third party was able to provide a technique to unlock the phones. He did not detail the methods the FBI devised but said “the technique that we developed is not a fix for our broader Apple problem — it’s of pretty limited application”.
“We received effectively no help from Apple,” he added.
Mr Wray said the evidence on Alshamrani’s phones indicated he had been radicalised from about 2015 and had spent years planning the Pensacola attack in co-ordination with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (Aqap).
“The Pensacola attack was actually the brutal culmination of years of planning and preparation by a longtime Aqap associate,” said Mr Wray.
Mr Barr said the US had recently carried out a counter-terrorism operation in Yemen targeted at Abdullah al-Maliki, who he identified as a Aqap operative who Alshamrani had associated with. Mr Barr declined to provide details of the operation.