Apple responded one more time to the FBI’s request to backdoor the iPhone 5c belonging to one of the San Bernardino shooters. This time, it’s not CEO Tim Cook publicly defending the need for high-security features built into iPhones and other Internet-connected gadgets, but it’s Apple’s legal team that filed its formal response to the FBI.
The company invokes the First and Fifth Amendments in its defense brief. But, more interestingly, it also explains what such an endeavor would imply, assuming Apple does lose the duel with the law enforcement agency.
After reading through some of Apple’s claims, we can’t but wonder whether such a custom software built for the FBI would hinder Apple’s product launch plans for the remainder of the year. Specifically, delays in development for iOS 10 could lead to a postponed iPhone 7 launch and we’ll explain why.
Apple doesn’t specifically mention any future products in its documents, but the company does reveal what creating GovtOS for the FBI – that’s actually the name that Apple uses – would mean for its day-to-day business operations.
Apple said that it would need between six and ten Apple employees to design, create, validate and deploy GovtOS. This isn’t a procedure that’s done in a day, and the software would go through the same steps any iOS creation goes through, according to Apple’s manager of user privacy Erik Neuenschwander. The list of employees includes, in addition to Neuenschwander, at least, two engineers from Apple’s core operating system group, a quality assurance engineer, a project manager, and either a document writer or a tool writer (depending on whether Apple is writing the tool to submit passcodes electronically or a protocol so that the government can do so).”
When it comes to the time required to do the job, Apple says it would need between two and four weeks. After the GovtOS is finalized, it would need proper testing, and any bugs found should be ironed out before “launch.” It’s very likely that bugs will be found in the first version of the code, which means engineers would need to put in the additional time for fixes, which isn’t quantified – and can’t be estimated – at this time.
When GovtOS is done, Apple will sign the software so it can run on the iPhone 5c. The actual software deployment would take place at a “secure, isolated, physical facility where the FBI’s passcode testing can be conducted without interfering with the investigation or disrupting Apple’s operations.”
The FBI would then need at least a day to use it to crack encryption, but maybe even more than that.
With all that in mind, it’s safe to assume that such an undertaking would require experienced veteran iOS developers. That means these engineers would take time off developing iOS 10. After all, it’s likely that the engineers who would create GovtOS are already deploying security and other features in iOS 10. This is why developing GovtOS might prove to be a tough undertaking for Apple, and even delay the launch of iOS 10.
If iOS 10 isn’t done in time, the iPhone 7 is likely to miss a September launch as well. Apple’s newest iPhones always launch running a new operating system, and Apple would not want to launch an iOS 10 version that’s not ready for mass consumption just so it can deliver the iPhone 7 series in mid-September. Of course, this is just speculation at this time, based on what Apple wrote in its brief to the court.
Should the FBI be successful in its quest against Apple, similar requests from the FBI and other agencies could follow, putting an even bigger strain on Apple’s operations, as each device would require a separate GovtOS version, and each software version would need a similar burdensome development phase.