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Apple Praised By Google, Damned By Rigby Family For FBI Refusal

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

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Apple criticised for refusal to unlock terrorist phone, but its stance also receives widespread support from rivals

Apple has been both praised and criticised for its refusal to unlock the iPhone belonging to terrorist Syed Rizwan Farook.

Farook and his wife murdered 14 people in San Bernardino, California, on December 2, and the FBI has been trying for months to unlock his iPhone.

Rigby Condemnation

This week Apple was ordered by a US court to provide “reasonable technical assistance” to authorities to allow the FBI to access Farook’s iPhone.

But Apple refused the “chilling” court order in a open letter to its customers written by CEO Tim Cook. He warned that the court order sets a “dangerous precedent”.

That refusal to co-operate drew condemnation from the family of Fusilier Lee Rigby, the solider who was brutally murdered by extremists in 2013 outside his London barracks.

Rigby’s uncle Ray McClure told the BBC that Apple was “protecting a murderer’s privacy at the cost of public safety.” He also said Apple’s approach was “short-sighted.”

“Valuable evidence is on that smartphone and Apple is denying the FBI access to that information,” McClure told the BBC. “If a court issued a warrant in the UK or United States to search somebody’s house, you wouldn’t stop them, you would allow them in – why should a smartphone be any different?”

cook“If Mr Cook has no sympathy for terrorists, why is he stopping the FBI accessing those phone records?” asked McClure. He then said that tech firms were forgetting about the victims of crime, and the families of those killed.

“I would hate to see on the streets of London another murder like happened to Lee Rigby, I’d hate to see another attack like happened in Paris,” he said. “How many victims of crime are not getting justice because of Apple’s stance?”

Widespread Support

But Apple’s stance has also drawn widespread praise from privacy campaigners and its tech rivals.

Google’s chief executive Sundar Pichai added his support when he tweeted that requiring companies to enable the hacking of their customer devices “could be a troubling precedent”.

“Important post by @tim_cook,” tweeted Pichai. “Forcing companies to enable hacking could compromise users’ privacy.”

Meanwhile Whatsapp’s founder Jan Koum also added his support for Apple’s stance in a Facebook post.

“I have always admired Tim Cook for his stance on privacy and Apple’s efforts to protect user data and couldn’t agree more with everything said in their Customer Letter today,” said Koum. “We must not allow this dangerous precedent to be set. Today our freedom and our liberty is at stake.”

Others have also added their support for Apple.

“This is not the first nor will it be the last time companies are put in a position of being asked to turn over private data to the government,” said Rajiv Gupta, CEO and founder of cloud security company, Skyhigh Networks.

“There are legitimate concerns about opening trapdoors to address an immediate-term problem with unintended long-term consequences,” said Gupta. “And there also are legitimate concerns about the government’s ability to keep data secure, given the breaches at the FBI, Homeland Security, and Office of Personnel Management.”

Backdoor Access

Apple has encrypted data (photos, messages etc) on iPhones by default since 2014. If the handset is locked, it requires a four digit passcode to access the device (meaning there are 10,000 possible combinations.)

Users have ten attempts to correctly enter the passcode, otherwise all the data is wiped automatically. Apple itself does not have the ability access the phone’s data, as no backdoor exists, but Cook believes that now the FBI wants Apple to create a backdoor.

The FBI wants Apple to create a new OS that will allow unlimited attempts to enter a passcode without the risk of the data being wiped. The FBI also wants Apple to allow a “brute force” method of entering multiple passcodes, without manually typing each passcode on the touchscreen.

Apple believes that this constitutes the creation of a backdoor access to iPhones and has refused.

The FBI for its part has pledged it would only use this backdoor in this particular case, but Apple clearly does not believe them and thinks the backdoor would be used on all iPhones that law enforcement officials want to access.

Gunter Ollmann, Chief Security Officer at Vectra Networks thinks Apple is wrong.

“It appears that there is some confusion –  and some of it may be deliberate – to connect this request from the FBI with the bigger government debate on providing backdoors and encryption,” said Ollmann.

“Apple has positioned the request from the FBI to be request to “backdoor” their product. This is not correct,” he said. “The FBI request is pretty specific and is not asking for a universal key or backdoor to Apple products. The FBI request should be interpreted as a lawful request to Apple to help construct a forensics recovery tool for a specific product with a unique serial number.”

“I’m concerned that since Apple has attempted to deny the FBI request citing use of “backdoors,” should they lose this legal argument, the repercussions could be extensive to the entire security  industry,” he said.

And other experts doubt Apple is on a firm legal footing over its refusal.

French Caldwell, former Gartner fellow and chief evangelist at MetricStream, argues that Apple’s public defiance to a federal court order is likely to tarnish its reputation and will have very little effect on the Judge.

“Judges are not elected, and while they do pay attention to public sentiment, if that sentiment is whipped up by a company publicising its defiance of a court order, the judiciary is not going to be very responsive to that,” said Caldwell.

“I admire Apple as a company, and there is no consumer tech company that has gone as far as Apple to protect privacy and personal communications,” said Caldwell. “However, the assertion that the FBI is demanding that Apple create a backdoor is a stretch. In this case, the government is not asking for a backdoor to Apple’s encryption, but rather is demanding Apple’s assistance in unlocking the screen of the phone of an alleged terrorist. This demand for assistance is not the first of its kind and Apple will have to comply. According to Judge Sheri Pym, Apple has five business days to demonstrate why the order is too burdensome.”

“Apple may be taking a pre-emptive stand on future government orders for access to data that don’t involve just unlocking a screen,” said Caldwell. “However, tech companies should ensure they are challenging government demands for access and court orders on legal and judicial grounds.”

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