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With its refusal to unlock San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone, Apple is fighting for us all

Updated 4 years ago
Published Feb 17th, 2016 8:19AM EST

A federal judge on Tuesday afternoon ordered Apple to provide technical assistance to the FBI with respect to accessing an iPhone 5c owned by Syed Farook, one of the San Bernardino shooters. Presumptively, the device was used to help plan and coordinate the December 2015 shooting that tragically left 14 people dead and many more wounded.

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The judge’s ruling, it’s worth noting, comes only after Apple initially declined to provide any assistance with the matter. While investigators previously received a warrant to investigate the contents of Farook’s phone, they’ve been unable to actually bypass the lock screen. The iPhone 5c, remember, still relies upon a 4-digit passcode as it was not bestowed with the Touch ID sensor that initially debuted with the iPhone 5s.

While some reports have suggested that Apple is being ordered to break its encryption scheme, the scope of the ruling is arguably narrower in scope.

The Washington Post explains:

The order, signed Tuesday by a magistrate judge in Riverside, Calif., does not ask Apple to break the phone’s encryption but rather to disable the feature that wipes the data on the phone after 10 incorrect tries at entering a password. That way, the government can try to crack the password using “brute force” — attempting tens of millions of combinations without risking the deletion of the data.

The order comes a week after FBI Director James B. Comey told Congress that the bureau has not been able to open the phone belonging to one of the killers. “It has been two months now, and we are still working on it,” he said.

If Apple for whatever reason found the order to be “unreasonably burdensome,” it was given five days to alert the court… but as it turned out, the company didn’t even need one day.

Now here’s where things get interesting. As it stands today, Apple currently has no means to prevent Farook’s phone from wiping itself after 10 failed passcode attempts. However, the judge’s ruling, in this case, articulates that Apple might be able to write some brand new piece of software capable of bypassing the security feature altogether.

The judge’s order reads in part:

Apple’s reasonable technical assistance shall accomplish the following three important functions: (1) it will bypass or disable the auto-erase function whether or not it has been enabled; (2) it will enable the FBI to submit passcodes to the SUBJECT DEVICE for testing electronically via the physical device port, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, or other protocol available on the SUBJECT DEVICE and (3) it will ensure that when the FBI submits passcodes to the SUBJECT DEVICE, software running on the device will not purposefully introduce any additional delay between passcode attempts beyond what is incurred by Apple hardware.

Apple was very quick to respond to the order, confirming assumptions that software like this would be seen as a backdoor, which is something that Tim Cook has been very outspoken about.

“We said no backdoor is a must,” Cook said this past October at the WSJDLive conference. “Do we want our nation to be secure? Of course. No one should have to decide between privacy or security. We should be smart enough to do both. Both of these things are essentially part of the Constitution.”

He argued the same thing in a Customer Letter posted on Apple’s site on Wednesday in response to the order. “The United States government has demanded that Apple take an unprecedented step which threatens the security of our customers,” the letter signed by Cook says. “We oppose this order, which has implications far beyond the legal case at hand.”

After explaining once again that encryption protects innocent Internet users rather than malicious individuals and terrorists who’d still be able to hide their activities without Apple’s encryption, Cook did say that Apple condemns the shooting in San Bernardino and that the company will help the FBI with any requests, within reason.

“For many years, we have used encryption to protect our customers’ personal data because we believe it’s the only way to keep their information safe,” the CEO wrote. “We have even put that data out of our own reach because we believe the contents of your iPhone are none of our business.”

But Apple won’t create a “new version of the iPhone operating system,” that would “circumvent” several important security features just to give the FBI access to a phone recovered during the investigation.

“In the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession,” Cook said.

“The FBI may use different words to describe this tool, but make no mistake: Building a version of iOS that bypasses security in this way would undeniably create a backdoor,” he added. “And while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control.”

Cook continued, “The government suggests this tool could only be used once, on one phone. But that’s simply not true. Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices. In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks — from restaurants and banks to stores and homes. No reasonable person would find that acceptable.”

He then added that “ironically,” the same engineers who created the security protocols that are built into iOS would be forced to weaken these protections and make everyone feel less safe. Cook argued that by using the All Writs Act of 1789 to justify its actions, and bypassing the U.S. Congress, the FBI is setting a dangerous precedent. Should the FBI win access to this particular iPhone, it would mean the agency could access practically anyone’s devices, and ask Apple to build surveillance software to “intercept your messages, access your health records or financial data, track your location, or even access your phone’s microphone without your knowledge.”

“Opposing this order is not something we take lightly. We feel we must speak up in the face of what we see as an overreach by the U.S. government,” Cook said. “We are challenging the FBI’s demands with the deepest respect for American democracy and a love of our country. We believe it would be in the best interest of everyone to step back and consider the implications.”

“While we believe the FBI’s intentions are good, it would be wrong for the government to force us to build a backdoor into our products. And ultimately, we fear that this demand would undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect,” Cook concluded.

The full letter is available at this link.

Yoni Heisler Contributor

Yoni Heisler has been writing about Apple and the tech industry at large for over 15 years. A life long Mac user and Apple expert, his writing has appeared in Edible Apple, Network World, MacLife, Macworld UK, and TUAW. When not analyzing the latest happenings with Apple, Yoni enjoys catching Improv shows in Chicago, playing soccer, and cultivating new TV show addictions.