Apple says the FBI has proposed an “unprecedented use” of one of the oldest laws in the United States to force the company to hack its own users.
On February 16, a federal magistrate judge ordered Apple to help the FBI hack into the San Bernardino shooter’s phone.
All citizens agree the government should be able to have certain information for investigations, like the data of a dead violent criminal. But it is in moments like this when the government can exploit consensus to obtain power the government does not and should not have.
Using an Orwellian term for “hacking,” the judge ordered Apple to provide “reasonable technical assistance” that would include, but not be limited to: “providing the FBI with a signed iPhone software file, recovery bundle, or other software image file (SIF) that can be loaded onto the subject device.”
The SIF would load and run from random access memory (RAM) and would not “modify the iOS on the actual phone, the user data partition, or system partition on the device’s flash memory.”
The government would load the file on the subject device at a government facility or an Apple facility. If the file was loaded at an Apple facility, the company would be required to grant the government “remote access to the subject device through a computer allowing the government to conduct passcode recovery analysis.”
Or, as Apple CEO Tim Cook, who announced the company will oppose the court order, declared, “The U.S. government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create. They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone.”
The announcement from Cook may be one of the most significant examples of a corporation standing up to the abusive power of the security state in the aftermath of National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden’s disclosures.
“The FBI wants us to make a new version of the iPhone operating system, circumventing several important security features, and install it on an iPhone recovered during the investigation,” Cook explained. “In the wrong hands, this software—which does not exist today—would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession.”
Cook plainly described, for those who may not understand encryption, what this means for users.
“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 cyber criminals,” Cook stated. “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.”
Cook continued, “We can find no precedent for an American company being forced to expose its customers to a greater risk of attack.”
The FBI wants to access the data on San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizwan Farook’s phone without the risk of erasing data after ten incorrect attempts to enter a password, which is how the phone’s security is setup. The FBI would use “brute force,” a process of inputting potentially tens of millions of combinations in order to crack the password to the shooter’s phone.
Reacting to Apple’s announcement, Snowden said, “The FBI is creating a world where citizens rely on Apple to defend their rights, rather than the other way around.” He also suggested, “The technical changes the FBI demands would make it possible to break into an iPhone (5C or older) in a half hour.”
In addition to the alarming request to expand technological capabilities so the government could hack into iPhones, the government wielded a dangerous interpretation of the All Writs Law of 1789 in order to force Apple to comply to its demands.
“The implications of the government’s demands are chilling,” Cook argued. “If the government can use the All Writs Act to make it easier to unlock your iPhone, it would have the power to reach into anyone’s device to capture their data. The government could extend this breach of privacy and demand that Apple build surveillance software to intercept your messages, access your health records or financial data, track your location, or even access your phone’s microphone or camera without your knowledge.”
Or, as Ahmed Ghappour, a professor at the University of California’s Hastings College of Law, told the Washington Post, “If the writ can compel Apple to write customized software to unlock a phone, where does it end?” Ghappour added, “Can the government use it to compel Facebook to customize an algorithm that predicts crime? It’s not clear where the line will be drawn, if at all.”
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), an organization established to defend privacy and digital freedom, has pledged to support Apple in its effort to oppose the FBI’s request.
“For the first time, the government is requesting Apple write brand new code that eliminates key features of iPhone security—security features that protect us all,” EFF declared. “Essentially, the government is asking Apple to create a master key so that it can open a single phone. And once that master key is created, we’re certain that our government will ask for it again and again, for other phones, and turn this power against any software or device that has the audacity to offer strong security.”
“The U.S. government wants us to trust that it won’t misuse this power. But we can all imagine the myriad ways this new authority could be abused. Even if you trust the U.S. government, once this master key is created, governments around the world will surely demand that Apple undermine the security of their citizens as well,” EFF added.
As the U.S. government forces Apple to engineer backdoor access to the iPhone, China would follow suit and demand similar access to devices as well.
According to the New York Times, this demand could embolden China to mandate “foreign firms provide encryption keys for devices sold in China.” (Foreign firms are already required to provide “technical information” and assist in decryption, when “police demand it in terrorism-related cases.”)
FBI Director James Comey has spent over a year urging “debate” on inserting “backdoors” into Apple’s encryption software. He has used fear, claiming “encryption threatens to lead us all to a very, very dark place.” Comey has also contended companies can simply invent “new modes for encryption,” that would enable the work of U.S. law enforcement and security agencies. But Susan Landau, a cybersecurity expert, called this “magical thinking” because it would expose users around the world to security vulnerabilities.
In Cook’s statement, he concluded, “We are challenging the FBI’s demands with the deepest respect for American democracy and a love of our country. We believe it would be in the best interest of everyone to step back and consider the implications.”
“While we believe the FBI’s intentions are good, it would be wrong for the government to force us to build a backdoor into our products. And ultimately, we fear that this demand would undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect.”