Of Backdoors and Politics

February 18th, 2016

When Tim Cook vowed that Apple would never develop a backdoor to help the authorities unlock encrypted iPhones, it was only inevitable that it would become a political football. That’s true especially in this political climate, where so-called debates, once staid affairs, have become the equivalents of wrestling matches.

So here’s what’s going on: It seems that the issue has become front and center in the wake of a ruling from U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym that Apple must provide software that would allow them to break into an iPhone 5c owned by one of the shooters in the San Bernardino, CA terrorist rampage last December. The problem is that, as with other iPhones using iOS 8 and iOS 9, it is encrypted in such a way that there is no way to unlock it except to use the correct passcode. That particular model doesn’t have Touch ID.

Here’s the problem: You can’t use brute force to break the password, which would involve a computer sending tons of login requests with different codes, because you only have 10 chances with Apple’s current unlocking scheme. After 10 failed attempts, the data on the iPhone is deleted.

So the possible solution would be for Apple to develop a special software utility that would allow the authorities to bypass the passcode limit and unlock the phone. Apple’s response? Definitely not!

The issue was important enough for Tim Cook to post, at Apple’s site, a lengthy explanation as to why. The long and short of it is that any backdoor Apple provides the authorities could be used to unlock any iPhone and, in turn, since nothing is totally secure, it would create the possibility hackers and terrorists would also be able to use the same technique to unlock anyone’s iPhone.

So much for the promise that nobody else can decrypt your iPhone, not even Apple. Well, unless they can guess the proper passcode with only ten tries.

Cook says, “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. We have even put that data out of our own reach, because we believe the contents of your iPhone are none of our business.”

Cook says that they provided assistance to law enforcement authorities after the San Bernardino attack, “The FBI asked us for help in the days following the attack, and we have worked hard to support the government’s efforts to solve this horrible crime. We have no sympathy for terrorists.

“When the FBI has requested data that’s in our possession, we have provided it. Apple complies with valid subpoenas and search warrants, as we have in the San Bernardino case. We have also made Apple engineers available to advise the FBI, and we’ve offered our best ideas on a number of investigative options at their disposal.”

But Cook said, in that statement, that they will not create a backdoor to the iPhone. “Specifically, the FBI wants us to make a new version of the iPhone operating system, circumventing several important security features, and install it on an iPhone 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.”

And that’s the crux of the argument. Worse, once that precedent had been created, it would open Apple to being similarly forced to unlock iPhones in other countries in which the product is sold, not to mention raising the possibility that hackers might get the code, and then all bets are off.

To be sure, the politicians have weighed in. Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump says, pure and simple, Apple should comply. But in his usual rush to generalize and simplify the complex, he doesn’t seem to be aware of the complications involved or the risks.

One of his opponents, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, had a more nuanced response, but concluded that the government and Apple should work together to come up with a solution.

The White House press representative said that the request only applied to a single iPhone, not to all iPhones. But from what Apple is claiming, the master key would not be limited to a single handset, but would open the possibility that other iPhones could be similarly decrypted.

For now Apple can appeal the court order, and perhaps pursue the matter in the courts all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. But even if the court would agree to fast track the matter, there’s still a matter of being short one member as a result of the recent passing of Justice Scalia. That would create the possibility of a four-four tie, thus sending it back to the lower courts. Of course, that assumes the court would be equally split on the issue, which is by no means certain.

At the end of the day, perhaps a middle ground can be found that would ensure your privacy and still allow law enforcement authorities to get the data they require to investigate a criminal case. So this is an issue that will not go away. Whether it will linger in the news cycle is another matter. The answer is probably not.

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