Let the Paranoia About Smartphone Security Begin

March 11th, 2016

As Apple continues to fight the authorities over whether to develop a compromised version of iOS that would defeat encryption protections, some frightening prospects have arisen as to how far this can go. First of all, the claim that it’s all about one iPhone 5c used as a work phone by a terrorist has been shown to be false. In addition to another case in New York City, the authorities are waiting in the wings to unlock other iPhones should Apple lose this fight.

But that’s just the start of it. According to an interview at Univision with Apple VP of Internet Software and Services, Eddy Cue, all of the nightmares about hacking mobile handsets that you see on TV crime procedurals could also come to pass.

But even if Apple provides the requested software, consider this: Right now, if you have iOS 8 or iOS 9 installed, you are given 10 tries to unlock the device via a passcode, which is the method of last resort. If you cannot succeed on the 10th try, the device’s data is erased. Thus ends any attempt to recover the data.

Apple is being asked to remove that protection against brute force logins with a special version of iOS. What this would mean is that a computer could send repeating login requests with different passcode combinations to the iPhone, which is known as a brute force attack. Of course, if it’s locked with a six-digit passcode, it could take days to unlock it, allowing for instant repeats of different potential passcodes. Still, it would present a serious security problem if that new version of iOS got out.

And it would, especially if multiple iPhones were involved. Worse, with the U.S. government’s pretty dismal record of security, it’s quite possible that this “secret” unlocking code would find its way into the wild in short order. So criminals — and some unsavory governments — would also be able to compromise iPhone security. This is a key issue that those who claim it’s just for one iPhone choose to ignore. People who say “I have nothing to hide,” forget who might get access to that data. Hint: It won’t just be the good guys.

Still, the government’s latest response to Apple’s refusal to comply still maintains it’s all about one iPhone. Quite disingenuous I should think.

Now according to Cue, that move, should it succeed, may just be the beginning. Armed with that precedent, it’s possible that the U.S. government could demand that Apple implement all sorts of surveillance schemes on their devices. How many times have you seen a TV show or movie depicting the requisite computer nerd sending down some code and turning on a smartphone’s camera and mic? Imagine if the authorities — or criminals — were able to do the very same thing on your iPhone?

In the original James Bond movies, you’d often see 007 check a hotel room for evidence of hidden surveillance gear. Well, imagine if your smartphone became a surveillance device, and you not only wouldn’t know about it unless you looked real close, but you couldn’t stop it if it happened?

Now some of you might remember that entertaining Will Smith action flick, “Enemy of the State” where he portrays a lawyer being pursued around Washington, D.C. by a rogue government agent (played by Jon Voight). The use all sorts of surveillance gear and manage to track Smith and co-star Gene Hackman to an inch of their lives.

Now in 1998, when this film was released, the prospect of such an intrusive national security state might have seemed a little far-fetched. But if you watch the film today with an open mind, you’ll see how prescient the writers and producers really were. When you consider the Apple versus FBI case, you might see something just as frightening coming true.

It’s early in the game. Apple has a court date the very same week they are holding an Apple media event to introduce some new gear, presumably a 4-inch iPhone and an updated 9.7-inch iPad. But even if Apple doesn’t get the judge’s decision reversed, they will appeal. Even if they win, the government will appeal. This case could drag on for months or years before the U.S. Supreme Court makes a final decision, or knocks it back to the last appellate court to, in effect, affirm their ruling.

I wouldn’t even pretend to know how the courts are going to rule. We already have a Brooklyn-based judge who sided with Apple. Even if the west coast case provides a different conclusion — and the judge doesn’t use the New York case as precedent — it won’t be over.

While I understand the desire to combat terrorism, and chase after criminals, how much of your privacy do you lose if you give the authorities nearly unfettered freedom to look at the stuff you’ve stored on your iPhone? Some of that data is already available courtesy of iCloud backups or cellular phone activity. That ought to be enough. At the end of the day, even if you didn’t mind the government having access, what about the terrifying possibility that those who gain access to your data might be the very criminals Apple once hoped to thwart when they added encryption to the iOS?

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2 Responses to “Let the Paranoia About Smartphone Security Begin”

  1. William Timberman says:

    For their convenience, local as well as national law enforcement agencies are demanding that we make available to them all the tools of a police state, with the promise that they’ll only use them as the Constitution allows. Given their well-documented irresponsibility — and I’m not talking just about Edward Snowden’s revelations — we’d have to be idiots to take this promise at face value. Clearly they want to be in the catbird seat here, i.e. they can lie to us, but we can’t lie to them. That’s fair, right?

    If we go much further down this road, genuine political opposition to the status quo may well become impossible. Are we all going to be content to let a supposedly disinterested secret police chief like James Comey determine which of our activities are politics and which are terrorism? Are we willing to allow the tools of mass surveillance to be put to use by official character assassins? A majority of Americans once had fairly clear answers to such questions. Not any more, it seems.

  2. DaveD says:

    A-h-h… I do recall the movie “Enemy of the State.” Where the “good guys” were the bad guys. Unbelievable how long ago the movie got made, close to 20 years. Today we can see the proliferation of security cameras in more places and cities. Is it for crime prevention? Banks still get robbed.

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