Apple has entered into an explosive data privacy battle with the US Government after it refused an FBI request to help unlock an iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino terrorists, Syed Rizwan Farook.
Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik murdered 14 people in San Bernardino, California, on 2 December, in a deadly terrorist attack that shocked America.
A Federal judge ordered Apple to provide “reasonable technical assistance” to authorities to allow the FBI to access Farook’s iPhone, after the iPad maker declined to provide assistance voluntarily.
But Apple has refused, point blank, to compile with the judges’ order.
In a bullish open letter to customers, CEO Tim Cook warned the court order sets a “dangerous precedent” and that it will “oppose this order”.
“For many years, we have used encryption to protect our customers’ personal data because we believe it’s the only way to keep their information safe,” wrote Cook. “We have even put that data out of our own reach, because we believe the contents of your iPhone are none of our business.”
Since September 2014, Apple has encrypted data (photos, messages etc) on iPhones by default. 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. This has meant that the FBI, two months after the deadly shooting spree in California, have been unable to access Farook’s iPhone.
Apple have long said even they cannot access the phone’s data, as no backdoor exists, but Cook said that now the FBI wants Apple to essentially create a backdoor.
“Specifically, 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,” said Cook. “In the wrong hands, this software – which does not exist today – would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession.”
It is thought that 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.
“The FBI may use different words to describe this tool, but make no mistake: Building a version of iOS that bypasses security in this way would undeniably create a backdoor,” warned Cook. “And while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control.”
“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,” said Cook. “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,” said Cook. “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.”
“Rather than asking for legislative action through Congress, the FBI is proposing an unprecedented use of the All Writs Act of 1789 to justify an expansion of its authority,” said Cook. “The implications of the government’s demands are chilling. 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.”
“We are challenging the FBI’s demands with the deepest respect for American democracy and a love of our country,” said Cook. “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.”
And Apple’s stance has drawn support from some experts.
“Apple has every right to say no to the government in this instance, and technology providers across the world will agree with it on the grounds that it is going to put them on very shaky ground,” said Jacob Ginsberg, Senior Director at encryption provider Echoworx. “The government is asking Apple to hack its own customers and undermine the security that it has put in place to protect its customers. In fact, they are asking for a key that simply doesn’t exist.”
“Encryption methods have been put in place to avoid these kind of issues and the consequences they create,” said Ginsberg. “Further, in asking Apple to create new software for this purpose, the government is asking Apple to fundamentally weaken all iPhones. Apple is putting the correct amount of forethought into this situation, by recognising that the answer to specific cases is never to weaken security for everybody.”
Last year, New York officials called for weaker encryption levels on smartphones in order for law enforcement to be able to easily access the data stored on the devices.
But the tech industry remains firmly opposed. Last June a number of leading technology companies including Apple, Google, Microsoft, IBM and Facebook wrote a strongly-worded open letter to President Obama, calling for him to respect the privacy rights of consumers by not weakening encryption systems.
Prime Minister David Cameron has previously said that he wanted British intelligence agencies to be able to monitor the encrypted communications of terror suspects.
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