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Lessons the FBI should learn from the San Bernardino iPhone debacle

Apple Vs FBI San Bernardino iPhone Analysis

The FBI has for the time being given up on its quest to force Apple to write a separate “GovtOS” to help law enforcement officials bypass the iPhone’s security protocols. Although the agency succeeded in finding a way to hack into the iPhone 5c used by San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook, it will not get to set a precedent where it can order tech companies to write software that will break their own products’ security.

As Apple explained this week, this is a case that the FBI and Department of Justice should have never pursued and I’d like to think that the government has learned some important lessons from this fiasco… though I’m not holding my breath.

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First, the FBI should realize that it just isn’t very trusted. The FBI had hoped that the spectacle of Apple allegedly impeding the investigation of a high-profile terrorist case would generate mass public outrage against the company. While some public opinion polls did show that most Americans sided with the FBI in this particular dispute, there was never any real backlash against Apple. In fact, even though Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump vowed to boycott Apple over its refusal to cave to the FBI, he just couldn’t help using his iPhone to continue tweeting out insults at opponents.

Basically, the FBI should stop assuming that it has the ability to rally the public to its side in these kinds of cases.

Second, the FBI needs to get more creative in how it approaches these problems. From the start of this case, I had a very hard time believing that the FBI had really exhausted all possible avenues for unlocking Farook’s iPhone. It was a three-year-old device, after all, and it didn’t come with the more advanced security features found in Apple’s newest iPhone models. Surely some private-sector mobile security firm had a way to crack it?

And sure enough, that’s exactly what happened. There was no need at all to ask Apple to write code to break its own products and the FBI should have been much more thorough before it even considered taking such a radical step.

Finally, the FBI should realize the entire concept of a “GovtOS” is a bad idea. Everyone wants the FBI to have as many tools as possible to investigate acts of terrorism. However, we also need to balance out the short-term needs of a specific investigation with the long-term needs of online security. Setting a precedent for forcing Apple, Google and Microsoft to make their own products less secure every time the FBI needs help cracking into a device would put everyone’s security at risk.

Because despite the FBI’s protestations to the contrary, there’s no way that the government would only use GovtOS just once, and that more it’s used, the greater the risk of it getting into the hands of hackers. Again, I understand that the FBI is frustrated by the fact that there’s no easy way to it to have access to all these devices, but it also needs to understand that’s a good thing for user security.

Will the FBI take these lessons to heart? I doubt it, but hopefully it will think twice before asking Apple or any other tech company to do anything like this again.

Prior to joining BGR as News Editor, Brad Reed spent five years covering the wireless industry for Network World. His first smartphone was a BlackBerry but he has since become a loyal Android user.