Why Apple Is Fighting Not To Unlock iPhones For The Government

Yesterday, the FBI filed an order compelling Apple to unlock an iPhone used by Syed Farook, one of the attackers in the San Bernardino shooting incident late last year which left 14 people dead.

Shortly thereafter, Apple CEO Tim Cook published a bold statement indicating that Apple planned to fight the order. Apple was joined by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which said it would aid  in the fight.

We’ve already covered the nuts and bolts of the request, as well as Cook’s response and the White House’s response to that response. You can read those for a primer. There has been a lot of ink spilled and there will likely be a lot more, but there are a few questions that I think deserve a closer look — and there is a broader point to be made that will likely get obfuscated by people pursuing technical details rather than implications.

This current order is all about Apple refusing to unlock a single device for the FBI. It is not to be confused with the related, but bigger, battle over the government forcing tech companies to weaken their encryption by introducing a ‘secret’ key that only they have.

The key question of the day is this: Why is Apple fighting not to unlock a terrorist’s iPhone, instead of waiting to fight their big battle over encryption back doors? Let’s dissect it.

The Ask

The government wants Apple to create a ‘one-off’ version of iOS that it could install on this device with three key changes:

  1. Disable or bypass the auto-erase function of iOS. This erases your phone if too many wrong passwords are input. A commonly enabled setting on corporate phones — which the iPhone 5c owned by the government agency for which Farook worked — is.
  2. Remove the delay on password inputs so that the FBI can ‘guess’ the passcode on the phone quicker, without it locking them out for minutes or hours, which is what iOS does to stop any random thief from doing this kind of thing. The inputs would be lowered to around 80 milliseconds, which would allow the password to be guessed in under an hour if it were 4 digits and significantly longer if it were more.
  3. Allow the FBI to submit passcode via the physical port on the phone, or a wireless protocol like Bluetooth or WiFi.

The final condition there is the scariest, and the one that Apple objects to the most. Don’t get me wrong. Cook’s letter clearly states that Apple is opposed to all of the conditions, but that last one is different. It is asking Apple to add a vulnerability to its software and devices, not just ‘remove’ a roadblock.

There is a possibility that Apple could drag this out with the FBI for a very long time, arguing about reasonable demands or the costs of this to Apple (which could be prohibitive as signing firmware is an incredibly non-trivial process). One outcome could be that Apple grinds down the asks until they just disable the auto-erase function, which is an operating system option that already exists, and leave the rest of it to the FBI to figure out.

But that final ask is what the entire objection hinges on. The All Writs Act, passed in 1789 (yes, a 200-year-old law,) is being used to force Apple to comply. The fact that the act is being used to try to make Apple do a lot of work to modify iOS and to add functionality that would significantly weaken its products and their security will likely be at the core of Apple’s defense when this gets to the courts. It’s a huge ballooning of the scope of the AWA, and it sets a precedent for allowing the government to force Apple or other companies to modify their systems to allow access to your private data.

And herein lies the rub. There has been some chatter about whether these kinds of changes would even be possible with Apple’s newer devices. Those devices come equipped with Apple’s proprietary Secure Enclave, a portion of the core processing chip where private encryption keys are stored and used to secure data and to enable features like Touch ID. Apple says that the things that the FBI is asking for are also possible on newer devices with the Secure Enclave. The technical solutions to the asks would be different (no specifics were provided) than they are on the iPhone 5c (and other older iPhones), but not impossible.

If I had to bet, Apple is probably working double time to lock it down even tighter. Its reply to the next order of this type is likely to be two words long. You pick the two.

The point is that the FBI is asking Apple to crack its own safe. It doesn’t matter how good the locks are if you modify them to be weak after installing them. And once the precedent is set then the opportunity is there for similar requests to be made of all billion or so active iOS devices. Hence the importance of this fight for Apple.

This is why the debate around this particular order should not focus overmuch on the technical aspects — but on the fact that the government would be weakening the security of a private company’s product, potentially impacting the civil liberties of American citizens and foreign nationals worldwide that use those products.

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