A judge has ordered that Apple bypass iPhone security in order for the FBI to attempt a brute-force password attack on an iPhone 5c used by one of the San Bernardino killers. Apple is refusing.
The order is pretty specific technically. This implies to me that what the FBI is asking for is technically possible, and even that Apple assisted in the wording so that the case could be about the legal issues and not the technical ones.
From Apple’s statement about its refusal:
Some would argue that building a backdoor for just one iPhone is a simple, clean-cut solution. But it ignores both the basics of digital security and the significance of what the government is demanding in this case.
In today’s digital world, the “key” to an encrypted system is a piece of information that unlocks the data, and it is only as secure as the protections around it. Once the information is known, or a way to bypass the code is revealed, the encryption can be defeated by anyone with that knowledge.
The government suggests this tool could only be used once, on one phone. But that’s simply not true. Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices. In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks from restaurants and banks to stores and homes. No reasonable person would find that acceptable.
The government is asking Apple to hack our own users and undermine decades of security advancements that protect our customers including tens of millions of American citizens from sophisticated hackers and cybercriminals. The same engineers who built strong encryption into the iPhone to protect our users would, ironically, be ordered to weaken those protections and make our users less safe.
We can find no precedent for an American company being forced to expose its customers to a greater risk of attack. For years, cryptologists and national security experts have been warning against weakening encryption. Doing so would hurt only the well-meaning and law-abiding citizens who rely on companies like Apple to protect their data. Criminals and bad actors will still encrypt, using tools that are readily available to them.
Congressman Ted Lieu comments.
Here’s an interesting essay about why Tim Cook and Apple are such champions for encryption and privacy.
Today I walked by a television showing CNN. The sound was off, but I saw an aerial scene which I presume was from San Bernardino, and the words “Apple privacy vs. national security.” If that’s the framing, we lose. I would have preferred to see “National security vs. FBI access.”
EDITED TO ADD (2/18): Good analysis of Apple’s case. Interesting debate. Nicholas Weaver’s comments. And commentary from some other planet.
EDITED TO ADD (2/19): Ben Adida comments:
What’s probably happening is that the FBI is using this as a test case for the general principle that they should be able to compel tech companies to assist in police investigations. And that’s pretty smart, because it’s a pretty good test case: Apple obviously wants to help prevent terrorist attacks, so they’re left to argue the slippery slope argument in the face of an FBI investigation of a known terrorist. Well done, FBI, well done.
And Julian Sanchez’s comments. His conclusion:
These, then, are the high stakes of Apple’s resistance to the FBI’s order: not whether the federal government can read one dead terrorism suspect’s phone, but whether technology companies can be conscripted to undermine global trust in our computing devices. That’s a staggeringly high price to pay for any investigation.
A New York Times editorial.
Also, two questions: One, what do we know about Apple’s assistance in the past, and why this one is different? Two, has anyone speculated on how much this will cost Apple? The FBI is demanding that Apple give them free engineering work. What’s the value of that work?
EDITED TO ADD (2/20): Jonathan Zdziarski writes on the differences between the FBI compelling someone to provide a service versus build a tool, and why the latter will 1) be difficult and expensive, 2) will get out into the wild, and 3) set a dangerous precedent.
This answers my first question, above:
For years, the government could come to Apple with a subpoena and a phone, and have the manufacturer provide a disk image of the device. This largely worked because Apple didn’t have to hack into their phones to do this. Up until iOS 8, the encryption Apple chose to use in their design was easily reversible when you had code execution on the phone (which Apple does). So all through iOS 7, Apple only needed to insert the key into the safe and provide FBI with a copy of the data.
EFF wrote a good technical explainer on the case. My only complaint is with the last section. I have heard directly from Apple that this technique still works on current model phones using the current iOS version.
I am still stunned by how good a case the FBI chose to push this. They have all the sympathy in the media that they could hope for.
EDITED TO ADD (2/20): Tim Cook as privacy advocate. How the back door works on modern iPhones. Why the average American should care. The grugq on what this all means.
EDITED TO ADD (2/22): I wrote an op ed for the Washington Post.
Posted on February 17, 2016 at 2:15 PM •