So what does Apple need in order to justify a special media event? Would just refreshing a Mac or two accomplish the task? What about the iPad?
In the old days, sure. Indeed, during the days of the Macworld Expo, every little product update was sufficient to talk about as some major event during a keynote. But when Apple decided to quit the Expo (since discontinued) and focus on their own media events, at times of their choosing, they became more selective. So when new Macs came out, they usually earned little more than a press release unless there was something special about the new model. So the 2013 Mac Pro was launched at that year’s WWDC.
Well, on March 21, Apple is staging a media gathering at its One Infinite Loop headquarters, but the expected new products don’t seem terribly compelling. Well, if you really want a smaller iPhone, expect a 4-inch model with updated components. Those who were disappointed that there was no iPad Air 3 last fall may be happy even if it’s called iPad Pro instead. It is also possible there will be some new Apple Watch bands, but do we need a special media event for that?
On the other hand, perhaps Apple has a surprise in store for us, something that the speculation has so far overlooked. I’m not expecting much, but I’d be happy to be surprised.
In any case, on this weekend’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we presented outspoken commentator Jeff Gamet, Managing Editor for The Mac Observer. He presented his views about the ongoing Apple dispute with the FBI over whether our favorite fruit company can be forced to build a special OS backdoor to unlock an iPhone 5c work phone used by a terrorist in the San Bernardino attacks. He also talked about Apple’s March 21, 2016 media event. And how does adding new models contribute to model bloat at Apple? Can they — should they — produce fewer product variations?
You also heard from columnist Kirk McElhearn, also known as Macworld’s “iTunes Guy.” Kirk presented his views about the ongoing Apple/FBI case. He also explained why he has preferred 4-inch iPhones over the larger versions, and what he anticipates from Apple’s media event. Is he ready to trade his iPhone 6s for the rumored iPhone 5se? He also talked about the final outcome of the Apple e-book antitrust case, where they are now forced to pay a settlement of $450 million to states, attorneys, and customers.
On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris focus on nuts and bolts UFO research with research scientist Phyllis Budinger. In 2013, Phyllis was named “Ufologist of the Year” and the MUFON International Symposium in Las Vegas. She holds two degrees in Chemistry: B.S. from Baldwin-Wallace College, Berea, Ohio (1961) and M.S. from Miami University, Oxford, Ohio (1964). Her expertise in the forensic analysis of UFO related materials has placed her services in great demand among well known investigators throughout the world including Ted Phillips [Delphos, KS case], Nancy Talbott, Kathleen Marden (the dress worn by Betty Hill when she was abducted), as well as working with MUFON Star Team investigators.
The fight over whether Apple should be forced to somehow unlock an iPhone 5c used by a terrorist — and clearly other iPhones — continues unabated in the media. What would normally be a matter that would be dealt with in court hearings, focusing on obscure technical issues, has played out in the public arena with statements from Apple executives, the director of the FBI, the United States Attorney General and even the President.
To be fair, President Obama didn’t actually discuss the case directly in his recent remarks on the subject at the South by Southwest music and tech conference in Austin, TX. Instead, he tried to be the great mediator, suggesting both sides get together and attempt to devise a solution that would protect individual privacy yet still allow law enforcement the opportunity to secure data that might help them fight criminals, perhaps prevent a possible terrorist attack.
Unfortunately, there are also examples of people talking past one another, and making statements that just aren’t so. That doesn’t help advance a dialog, although it would be better to settle things without having to consider the impact of a court order.
So if Apple loses the fight even after the U.S. Supreme Court is asked to intervene, what then? Does Apple refuse to follow the order out of principle, thus risking the possibility of being charged with contempt, or do they acquiesce and do what they have to do to comply?
Short of that, I’m troubled by the fact that the government continues to make untrue claims, that it’s all about a single iPhone and that is the end of it. At the same time, there are other cases of locked iPhones waiting in the wings that will also be dealt with after the final verdict is in. So if Apple loses, do the authorities limit the matter to a lone iPhone and set those other requests aside? What about state and local governments where police departments might demand access too?
There’s something in the courts about legal precedent, which means that an action that succeeds in one case can be used as the basis for it to succeed in other cases. How does the U.S. Department of Justice shut that down? Or did they use the San Bernardino terrorist attack as just the opening wedge in a wider quest to force Apple to create a backdoor that will help them in other cases? Clearly emotions about terrorism are high, and even if there’s only a slight chance that this iPhone 5c, a work phone, would have actionable information, isn’t it worth the potential risks to one’s privacy?
Obviously police already have powers to retrieve evidence. A search warrant, if approved by a judge, can be used to allow them to come into your home, even if uninvited, to tear apart the premises in search of evidence in a criminal case. The same is true for your car, a storage facility, and your place of business. Your digital breadcrumbs are also subject to search by examining your cell phone records, and other non-encrypted data. Apple has already provided iCloud data from that iPhone 5c. If you refuse to allow yourself to be tested in the event the police feel you were driving while drunk, you can be thrown into jail in many jurisdictions.
President Obama did make a point when he argued against an “absolutist” position. He feels there has to be a way to balance one’s right to privacy against the need to protect the people against possible criminal acts.
Apple says that, to unlock that iPhone, they would have to build a new version of iOS that would remove passcode brute force protection. That means that the device’s data would no longer self-destruct if you failed to unlock it after 10 attempts. That appears to open a backdoor, a way that defeats encryption. It seems quite simple on the surface. If such code exists, it will be subpoenaed in other cases. If Apple destroys that code, and hackers can’t recover it, that doesn’t stop the authorities from demanding that Apple do it all over again in another case. Indeed a court order could prevent Apple from trashing the source code, or even demand that source code and the completed OS be delivered on a flash drive for later use.
Even if it doesn’t happen in a single case, nothing can prevent it from happening again. The DOJ isn’t going to agree to terms that prevent them from unlocking another iPhone. And even if they did, it wouldn’t stop other agencies from making the same demand. And what about other countries, using that as a precedent to demand that Apple provide the same tools? Otherwise they would be prohibited from selling iPhones and other gear in that country?
In an ideal world, would Apple be able to create a digital blackbox in iOS that would only be openable by certain parties, and only under court order? And what about criminal hackers? If this code is out there, if there is a way to unlock an iPhone, what would prevent unsavory elements from stealing the code? Indeed one reason iPhone thefts are reportedly way down is because of encryption. When the criminals get the device, it’s useless if they can’t unlock it. Even if they attempt to recover the handset, it can still be locked by the carrier via an IMEI lock if you report it stolen.
True, a carrier lock may possibly be defeated by hacking or setting it up with another carrier with less ethical practices, but that’s not easy. An encrypted iPhone is no longer an attractive target for thieves.
At the end of the day, it’s very possible Apple will find a way to settle with the government, some hacker’s trick to unlock that iPhone without having to build a new OS. Some suggest the NSA might have the tools to do it, but such issues of interagency rivalry prevent them from showing their hand. Or maybe there are independent hackers out there who could come to the government’s assistance if they lose the case.
Privacy is not unlimited, but there have to be checks and balances against abuse. Some suggest the U.S. Congress ought to get involved, set up a committee to research the matter and suggest some possible remedies. But committees are often ways to just bury an issue, particularly with a dysfunctional Congress.
THE FINAL WORD
The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.
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