- Apple granted the FBI access to the iCloud account of a protester accused of setting police cars on fire in Seattle this summer, according to court documents.
- Once it had access to the protester’s account, the FBI found screenshots of an Instagram post promoting the protest, a screenshot of a recipe for a Molotov cocktail, and videos of “a green glass bottle” in an unzipped backpack.
- It’s routine for Apple to comply with court-issued search warrants, but the cooperation contrasts with Attorney General William Barr’s previous complaints that Apple has hindered investigations by refusing to help unlock suspects’ iPhones.
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As FBI officers were investigating a Seattle man suspected of setting police cars on fire, they turned to Apple for help.
In response, Apple granted access to the man’s iCloud account, giving the FBI access to screenshots, photos, and videos that are now central to their case against the suspect, court documents show.
It’s routine for Apple to comply with court-issued search warrants by handing over suspects’ data to investigators. But the episode, detailed in court documents and previously reported by Forbes, shows just how valuable a suspect’s smartphone data can be to an investigation, and contrasts with previous public clashes between the FBI and Apple.
Federal prosecutors are now charging the suspect — Kelly Jackson of Edmonds, Washington — with two counts of arson and unlawful possession of a deadly device. Jackson is accused of throwing two Molotov cocktails that burned police cars during Seattle protests against police brutality in May.
Investigators identified Jackson using surveillance footage and obtained a warrant to search his cell phone location data, provided by Verizon. The Verizon data showed the general location of Jackson’s phone when he made six calls on the day of the suspected firebombing, all of which placed him near the scene of the fire. It also revealed that Jackson was using an iPhone 7.
FBI officers then turned to Apple for information about Jackson’s iCloud account. Apple disclosed the name, email, phone number, and residential address associated with Jackson’s account, then subsequently granted the FBI access to the contents of Jackson’s account in response to a court-ordered search warrant.
Once it had access to the iCloud account, the FBI found screenshots of an Instagram post promoting the protest, a screenshot of a recipe for a Molotov cocktail, and videos of “a green glass bottle” in an unzipped backpack, according to the criminal complaint. They also found photos in Jackson’s camera roll that appeared to show him wearing the same hoodie seen in surveillance footage.
The court documents show just how revealing a suspect’s smartphone can be when obtained by federal prosecutors. It also contrasts with federal law enforcement agencies’ past gripes accusing Apple of being unwilling to aid in investigations.
In recent years, Attorney General William Barr has criticized Apple for refusing to help unlock the iPhones of suspected terrorists (the FBI ultimately cracked into the phones on their own).
The difference between that case and this one is a matter of technology. While Apple has access to all users’ iCloud accounts, there’s no “backdoor” that allows it to unlock a physical iPhone without knowing the password — meaning it can’t access files stored locally on the iPhone, or encrypted messages sent through iMessage. Apple has said that building a “backdoor” as requested by the FBI would compromise the security of all iPhone users.
An Apple spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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