KEY POINTS

  • Apple was reportedly planning to encrypt users iPhone backup data in the iCloud around the end of 2017 and early 2018 to better protect user information
  • FBI allegedly objected in a private meeting, arguing it would make gathering evidence more difficult and put Apple in the forefront of public and government criticism
  • Sources for the report allegedly work or had worked for either the FBI or Apple at the time of the private meeting

Reuters reported Tuesday that Apple dropped plans to allow iPhone users to fully encrypt data backups in the iCloud after the FBI complained it could make investigations difficult and present new legal challenges.

Reuters was told about the FBI’s objections by sources who currently or previously worked at the FBI and Apple at the time of the complaint.

The report says Apple had been planning to offer users “end-to-end data encryption” for saving data on the iCloud sometime around the end of 2017 and early 2018. It was designed to combat hackers trying to gain access to people’s personal files and would even take away Apple’s ability to unlock encrypted data.

However, members of the FBI’s cybercrimes unit and the operational technology division reportedly objected to the decision in a private meeting with Apple representatives.

They complained that this would deny investigators “the most effective means” of gathering evidence on an iPhone-using suspect. It could also open Apple up for criticism of “protecting criminals,” face lawsuits, or possibly be the cause for new legislation against data encryption.

Apple ultimately dropped the encryption plan.

“Legal killed it, for reasons you can imagine,” a former Apple employee told Reuters. “They decided they weren’t going to poke the bear anymore.”

The alleged employee specifically references to the court battle Apple had with the FBI over the 2016 mass shooting in San Bernardino, California.

One of the suspects was reportedly an iPhone user and the FBI had obtained a court order to have Apple break into the phone for evidence. Apple filed an appeal but it was ultimately dropped after the FBI reportedly found a contractor that could break into the phone.

However, two alleged former FBI employees argued that the decision was mutual and there was no tension to speak of.

“It’s because Apple was convinced,” one  source told Reuters. “Outside of that public spat over San Bernardino, Apple gets along with the federal government.”

The report follows increased criticism by the Trump administration over Apple’s alleged refusal to further help the FBI in its investigation of the shooting at a naval base in Pensacola, Florida.

Attorney General William Barr publicly asked Apple during a press conference on Jan. 13 to unlock the iPhones used by the shooter, statements echoed by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. President Trump took it a step further on Twitter, saying Apple refused to help authorities catch “killers, drug dealers, and other violent criminal elements.”

Apple pushed back, saying it had turned over all the information available on the Pensacola shooting it could access. However, the company has declined to speak further about data encryption as well as any discussions it may have had with the FBI.

Apple has been implementing stronger encryption on its iPhones, making it harder for law enforcement to access the devices Apple has been implementing stronger encryption on its iPhones, making it harder for law enforcement to access the devices Photo: AFP / Philip FONG