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Trump demands that Apple unlock terrorist's iPhones

(Image credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

Yesterday, it was U.S. Attorney General William Barr slamming Apple for what he perceives as a lack of cooperation from the iPhone maker for help in unlocking phones used by a gunman in a December terror attack. Now President Trump is turning up the pressure on Apple as well.

The president criticized Apple using his favorite medium — Twitter — posting a tweet this evening (Jan. 14) that called on the tech giant to "step up to the plate and help our great Country."

The tweet is in line with Trump's transactional view of politics and policy-making. The Trump administration has spared Apple from many of the tariffs imposed on goods as part of an ongoing trade war with China; now, the president argues in his tweet, it's time for Cupertino to return the favor by unlocking phones of "killers, drug dealers  and other violent criminal elements."

Apple hasn't yet responded to our request for comment on President Trump's Twitter-based missive, but the company did supply a lengthy statement on Barr's Jan. 13 criticism about how Apple has responded to requests to unlock the two iPhones used by Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, the gunman who killed three people and injured eight others at Naval Air Station Pensacola on Dec. 6.

Apple rejected Barr's claim that it hasn't provided "substantive assistance," saying that it's responded thoroughly to the government's requests and will continue to do so. 

"We are continuing to work with the FBI, and our engineering teams recently had a call to provide additional technical assistance," Apple told Tom's Guide.

Where Apple and the government are at odds is over creating a so-called "backdoor" into encrypted messages. Government investigators want such a tool, which Apple points out would compromise the privacy and security of all users. Four years ago, Apple refused to help unlock an iPhone used by the perpetrator of a 2015 mass-shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., and posted a public letter explaining the need to keep personal information encrypted.

Alshamrani used an iPhone 5 and an iPhone 7. Both of those devices are old enough to where security experts feel investigators could unlock them without any help from Apple using third-party tools.

Nevertheless, the Trump administration is clearly trying to ramp up public pressure, which may put Tim Cook in an awkward position. The Apple CEO has publicly courted Trump, including inviting him to tour a facility in Texas where the Mac Pro is assembled and that the president took credit for opening. (The plant opened in 2013.) Cook has also visited schools with Ivanka Trump, the president's daughter who is also a White House advisor, to show off STEM initiatives, and the Apple CEO has been a frequent dinner guest of assorted Trump family members.

That's resulted in some favorable policy decisions for Apple from the Trump administration, particularly in the area of tariffs. With the president now implying he wants something in return from Apple, it will be interesting to see just how the company reacts.