Anyone who believes Apple and the FBI are at an impasse over investigations into the iPhone maker’s criminal customers should think again. In Seattle, Apple has given the feds vital evidence from one of its iCloud users who was arrested for fire bombing cop cars during the George Floyd protests in late May.
The case shows how Apple is willing to help even where the context of the crime is controversial, namely the Black Lives Matter protests. That’s despite President Trump and Attorney General William Barr lambasting the company for failing to help track down serious criminals whilst caving to the demands of the Chinese government. Their comments came after Apple said it wouldn’t help the government get into the physical iPhones of a Saudi national who shot and killed three on a Pensacola, Florida, naval base in December 2019. (The FBI hacked into the phones anyway.)
In the Seattle case, the FBI had been tipped off about the identity of a protester police believed had set fire to at least two police patrol vehicles during a protest against police brutality on May 30 following the killing of George Floyd, according to a search warrant reviewed by Forbes. The FBI checked the tip against surveillance feeds, news broadcast footage and social media images, deciding that the lead was worth chasing down. They obtained Verizon records for the suspect, Kelly Jackson, that revealed his location during the protests, what calls he made and the fact that he was using an iPhone 7.
That’s when the FBI called on Apple, asking for the suspect’s iCloud information. A trove of potential evidence was returned by the Cupertino tech giant, including screenshots hosted in Jackson’s photo library, according to the search warrant. One screenshot was of an Instagram post promoting the protest, dubbed the “The Defiant Walk of Resistance Against Injustice.” Then there was a screenshot from mtlcounterinfo.org with a list of “ingredients” for a Molotov cocktail.
Videos from the iCloud account showed a white male’s hands opening a black bag containing a green glass bottle with a gold cap, filled with liquid, the FBI wrote. And another showed a similar glass bottle being thrown into the open driver door of a cop car, setting it on fire. The individual who threw the bomb then celebrated in front of the camera, though their face was not visible, according to the FBI. His face was visible in an image taken later that day on the same phone and it appears he’s wearing the same sweatshirt as the person shown setting fire to the police vehicle, the agency added.
Jackson was arrested last week and charged with unlawful possession of a destructive device and arson. He hasn’t yet made a plea and his lawyer had not provided comment at the time of publication.
Apple, which hadn’t responded to a request for comment, has been happy to hand over iCloud data on suspects in the vast majority of cases where the U.S. government has made a valid legal request. As the company’s transparency report for the second half of 2019 shows, it received 4,095 requests on Apple user accounts and returned information for 3,645 of those.
It appears that if Apple is asked by the government to provide account data from its servers, rather than break the security of its iPhone, the tech titan will often comply.
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