Apple ditched its plan to allow iPhone users to fully encrypt the backups of their device data on iCloud servers to appease a request from the FBI, according to a new report.
While Apple has publicly feuded with law enforcement over its refusal to provide access to iPhones, even with a court order, or to insert a backdoor allowing access to encrypted data, it appears the tech giant is more willing to work with authorities behind closed doors.
The Reuters report, which cites one current and three former FBI officials, and one current and one former Apple employee, said that two years ago Apple had planned to offer its users end-to-end encryption when they chose to store data in the iCloud.
This would mean that Apple would be unable to unlock the data for law enforcement even with a court order.
Apple told the FBI about its plan, which was mainly about stopping hackers, and the agency objected to it.
The FBI reportedly said that the move would block them from the most effective means for gaining evidence against iPhone-using suspects, Reuters reported.
Soon after the discussions, Apple dropped the encryption plan.
According to one of the former Apple employees, the company ditched the plan due to it trying to avoid being attacked by public officials for apparently defending criminals, fears it could be sued for moving existing data out of the reach of law enforcement and that it could encourage politicians to implement encryption-busting legislation.
“Legal killed it, for reasons you can imagine,” the former Apple employee told Reuters.
“They decided they weren’t going to poke the bear anymore.”
The incident came recently after Apple opposed a court order in 2016 to help the FBI unlock the iPhone of one of the shooters who killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California.
The FBI eventually was able to access the phone using a “tool” from a private company.
One of the former FBI officials said that while Apple publicly opposed efforts by authorities to access iPhone users’ data, they are willing to work with them behind the scenes.
“It’s because Apple was convinced,” the former FBI agent told Reuters. “Outside of that public spat over San Bernardino, Apple gets along with the federal government.”
Similar circumstances have emerged recently, with both US President Donald Trump and Attorney-General William Barr slamming Apple for refusing to provide access to two iPhones used by a 21-year-old who killed three people in a shooting last month in Florida.
Barr accused Apple of providing no “substantive assistance” to the FBI’s attempts to access the phone, while Trump picked up on the case and tweeted an attack on the company.
“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 deals and other violent criminal elements,” Trump tweeted.
“They will have to step up to the plate and help our great country, now.”
Apple has denied it is not assisting the FBI, saying it has handed over large amounts of data from the phones. The company also reiterated its position of not inserting backdoor access into iPhones for law enforcement.
The data provided by Apple was from the iCloud backups of the iPhones. It would have been unable to provide this data if it had gone ahead with the recently revealed plan two years ago.
US authorities regularly seek court orders asking for device backups and other iCloud content from Apple. This has happened in 1,568 cases in the first half of last year, covering about 6,000 accounts. Apple has said it turned over at least some data in 90 per cent of requests.
Currently only sensitive data like passwords and health information is encrypted by Apple, with other data like text messages remaining un-encrypted and readable.