At the FBI’s urging, a federal magistrate has ordered Apple to create a program that will allow the FBI to get into an iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino shooters. They claim this a one-off thing; they just want to gain access to the shooter’s phone. On the radio I heard a federal justice spokesman explain it like this: “If the FBI had a warrant to enter and search a house, but the house had a combination lock that would permanently lock the door if the wrong combination was entered a few times, the FBI would knock the door in using a tank. All we want is for Apple to supply us with the tank.”
But that is nonsense. If the locked-door scenario happened, the FBI would bring their own tank to knock the door in. They wouldn’t ask a lock manufacturer to build the tank for them.
The US government have wanted a back-door into Apple’s iPhones for a while now. This has especially been the case since September 2014, when Apple introduced new encryption into its iPhone operating system that would make it mathematically impossible for the company to unlock them for investigators. This was a departure from the past, when investigators could get access to a device if they sent it to Apple headquarters with a search warrant.
The US authorities are painting this as strictly an anti-terrorism move, and that it would apply only to the iPhone in question. But that is plain wrong. Ever since the Ed Snowden revelations, FBI director James Comey has been trying to figure out a way around the software as he and Apple’s Tim Cook have traded barbs publicly and privately. And now he and his colleagues are using thie San Bernadino murders as a way to create case law that could force tech companies to provide back doors into their products. The FBI claim they want Apple to create a master key just for the one iPhone; but once the precedence had been set, the authorities would use the Apple master key whenever they felt like it, and would be on sure ground to insist other Silicon Valley companies do the same.
Security professionals have pointed out that back doors are not the way to carry out investigations: see here and here for just a couple of examples. The tragic San Bernadino shootings are, I’m sorry to say, just a way for the US authorities to get the back doors they want on faulty reasoning. I’m happy Apple have contested this court order. I don’t like Apple products or their propriety approach, but I’m at one with them that individual freedom is paramount. After all, isn’t individual freedom what we are trying to defend from people like ISIS?
In addition to that: criminals might get hold of back door tools and use them to steal identities, bank details etc; and oppressive foreign governments might use them to persecute pro-democracy activists. The authorities will obviously claim that no one will be able to access these master keys. But the US government, among others, have suffered theft of data frequently; and foreign governments have spies, whose job is to steal secret tools and information.
To go back to the locked door and tank scenario: in this case the US authorities should bring their own tank – the NSA. Or do they really expect us to believe that the NSA couldn’t crack this one phone?