Zit Seng's Blog

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Apple’s Battle With The FBI Is Extraordinary

Apple and the FBI are currently locked in a fierce public relations battle. The fight is about privacy vs fighting terrorism. The FBI had asked Apple for help to unlock the San Bernardino terrorist’s iPhone. Apple has refused to comply. The FBI isn’t asking for something outrageous. But the issue is that it sets a dangerous precedent.

Apple iPhone 5

Now, on the surface, and depending on how you look at it, the FBI’s demands aren’t terribly unreasonable. They are asking to hack into the iPhone of Farook, one of the shooters in the San Bernardino attack on 2nd December 2015. Farook and his wife had killed 14 people and seriously injured 22 people. They later died in a shootout with police. Many people want answers.

The FBI was asking to unlock only one iPhone, the iPhone of Farook. Is there an invasion of privacy? Yes, perhaps. But just like the police can obtain a court warrant to search your house, the investigators did get permission to search Farook’s iPhone. They were stalled because the device was locked by a passcode. The FBI then got a judge to order Apple to unlock the iPhone. Just one iPhone.

It all seems reasonable. A terrible crime had been committed, and it makes sense to let law enforcement agencies do their job.

Apple, however, refused to comply. Instead, they took to writing an open letter to their customers. Apple decided to wage a PR war. There is something important at stake. There is something that has been brewing for some time, and Apple was seizing this opportunity to bring awareness to the whole world.

The issue here is that the FBI is essentially asking Apple to build a backdoor to the iPhone. The FBI wants Apple to build a special version of the iPhone operating system that circumvents several important security features, and install it on that one specific iPhone.

Depending on how you look at it, this seems reasonable. Except that it will be a dangerous precedent. If it’s this one iPhone now, then why not other iPhones in future? Why not the backdoor simply be a permanent part of future iPhone operating systems? Why not it be part of all operating systems?

Alright, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. We’re not there yet. But this is something really serious. It’s something Apple thinks is time to call for a public discussion.

Now, this is a PR campaign. Apple is telling the story in a way that helps their cause. Some of their points are arguable. For example, Apple says that the software backdoor that the FBI wants their help to create, if it falls into the wrong hands, will have the potential of letting anyone unlock any iPhone in their possession.

Yes, that may be true. But yet that is easy to prevent. Apple is being ordered to assist in unlocking just one iPhone right now. It’s not difficult to understand that Apple can easily lock down this code to work only on that one specific iPhone. Since the iPhone operating system must be signed, it’s not possible for someone to modify the code to work on other iPhones and be able to get those iPhones to install that modified code.

Specifically, Apple is asked to help by removing the software barriers that prevent brute-force cracking of the passcode on that one iPhone. You see, the iPhone operating system has software safeguards that, among other things, erases all data on the device after 10 successive passcode entry failures.

But we are indeed going down a dangerous path. It is one iPhone now. Why not another iPhone tomorrow? Then a couple more next week? Before long, perhaps Apple would be ordered to simply make a generic version of the software backdoor to facilitate the government’s access to any iPhone it so desires to have.

So you see, this is what Apple is concerned about. It is something we all should be concerned about.

This battle between Apple and FBI is getting really interesting. Here’s a timeline:

  • 16 Feb:
    • US federal court in California ordered Apple to help the FBI to unlock the iPhone of a San Bernardino terrorist.
    • Tim Cook took to writing an open letter to protest. Apple will appeal the order.
  • 17 Feb:
  • 19 Feb:
    • Twitter and Facebook throws support behind Apple too.
    • Department of Justice files motion to comply with the California judge’s order. This sounds a little strange, because the original order was already valid on its own. You don’t quite need another order to compel the compliance with the first order.
    • Donald Trump also got into the action, supporting the government. His point is that the iPhone in question actually belonged to the government.
    • Apple shared exactly what it is that the FBI is asking them to do. They want a modified iPhone software that will allow brute force password crack to be performed.

There are more interesting bits in this battle. Apple at one point suggested that it was possible to retrieve the iPhone’s content through its iCloud backup. But the government bungled up when they reset the iPhone’s password, which foreclosed the possibility of retrieving a new backup of the phone. The FBI in turn claimed the reset was performed by the San Bernardino county officials. County officials apparently angrily tweeted that they had in fact been working under the instructions of the FBI. The FBI subsequently admitted, but insisted it was not a screwup.

The whole saga begins to read like a movie plot. All that PR aside, this important question is before us. The U.S. government is asking to break just one iPhone this time. That’s not the important issue. The issue is if we should allow the security and encryption technologies in our lives to be compromised, so that someone else can intrude into our individual privacy?

Sure, we all want to fight crime. But we need to understand that weakening our security systems doesn’t mean criminals cannot find better ways to protect their data and their communication. Weakening our own security systems opens up too much potential for abuse, as well as opportunities for criminals to break our own systems.

Furthermore, so what if Apple were to do it, i.e., build a backdoor. Couldn’t we all just buy another phone, from a manufacturer who didn’t have to give in to the demands of the U.S. government? Of course, it wouldn’t be an iPhone then. But if privacy were important enough to you, that would be a secondary matter.

So you see, Apple is in this position of being compelled to assist the FBI. They chose to turn it into a PR battle.

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