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Why the NSA doesn’t support the FBI in the San Bernardino iPhone case

Updated Dec 19th, 2018 9:14PM EST
Apple FBI iPhone Case NSA

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The Snowden leaks explained in great detail some of the most sophisticated spying tools the NSA has developed in recent years for conducting mass surveillance operations and collecting data. That’s one of the reasons why Apple and other tech companies started using encryption to protect their devices, and why Apple is currently involved in a high-profile case against the FBI.

The government agency wants access to the iPhone 5c that belonged to one of the San Bernardino shooters, looking to force Apple to create a backdoor into the operating system. Many people pondered why the FBI isn’t cracking the iPhone without help from Apple, and why the NSA and CIA aren’t providing any assistance.

New reports cast a different light on the case, revealing that the NSA is not in the FBI’s corner in this fight and explaining why the intelligence agency isn’t keen on breaking iPhone encryption the way the FBI wants.

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A Reuters report from earlier this week explains that not all members of the government are in agreement when it comes to the FBI vs. Apple case. Some support the Bureau while others are backing Tim Cook & Co. on the matter.

Some government officials from Commerce, State and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy believe that encryption is integral to protecting the American tech sector, as well as U.S. secrets. These issues have apparently come up in meetings of the interagency National Security Council.

Furthermore, officials are worried that terrorists and criminals would simply seek encrypted devices and services made by foreign companies. Confronting the tech sector in such a manner – some 40 companies are officially backing Apple against the FBI – could heighten distrust in American products overseas.

With all that in mind, key officials from the NSA and the Department of Homeland Security are opposed to the fight with Apple, according to Reuters’ sources.

That’s not to say that the NSA can’t, or won’t, crack the iPhone 5c in question if it wanted to. The older device still runs iOS 7 and is susceptible to brute force attacks, as The Verge points out.

But the reason the NSA doesn’t want to be a part of this fight might be more pragmatic than that. The agency could already have advanced means to crack iOS security, even on newer devices. These tools could take advantage of bugs in iOS that Apple has not discovered. Helping the FBI would confirm that the NSA has such tools readily available, prompting not only a new review of iOS from Apple, but also from hackers and foreign agents looking for similar encryption-breaking programs.

The NSA might also be more interested in conducting covert intelligence operations with the help of these tools that we can only speculate on, without drawing any attention or having to endure the scrutiny of the public and the media yet again.

Meanwhile, the FBI is seeking evidence that will later have to be backed up in courts in future cases that might be related to the San Bernardino shootings. For that reason, the FBI needs Apple’s official help on the matter.

Instead of having to explain to a court the unofficial hacks it used to crack an iPhone and then obtain potentially critical evidence from it – explanations that will stay in the public record – the Bureau would prefer to have Apple extract the information from the iPhone by using a specially crafted GovtOS version of iOS that would circumvent the security features built into the standard iPhone software.

The irony here is also rather strong. It’s the NSA that drove Apple to create more secure devices in the first place, the kind of gadgets the FBI can’t crack now. And it’s the NSA that’s suspected of being able to access encrypted iPhones even today, yet the agency doesn’t want to help the FBI at this point, at least not in any official capacity.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.