Although this might sound directly out of a Sci-fi movie, the connection is quite simple and something most of us have heard in the last couple of months in the news. Apple, on February 16 was ordered to help unlock an iPhone 5C used by Syed Farook. He was one of two terrorist that gunned down 14 people in San Bernardino California.
At first glance, helping the FBI solve the horrifying terrorist attack seems like the right thing to do, but is it? Should Apple comply with the FBI? What are the implications? Here is an overview of the problem and how it might affect our everyday life.
Digital Security at Apple
At its very basic level, Apple’s current iOS stores a passcode on the device where only a user with knowledge of the passcode can unlock. Usually there is a predetermined number of tries before the device either blocks itself for a couple of minutes, or wipes itself out permanently. A very convenient and safe strategy for when the average Joe loses his/her iPhone. Digging a bit deeper, we know that the iOS 8 and 9 use a high encryption standard called AES (Advanced Encryption Standard), in other words the same standard the US Government uses.
Unfortunately for the FBI and any other law enforcement agencies, they would need two things to be able to hack into the device 1) a supercomputer that is able to generate and exhaust all passcode possibilities and 2) a device that lends itself to multiple passcode tries (i.e. it won’t either block or wipe itself out). Even with these two conditions in place it would take at least 5 years to crack the phone and access the data.
How is Apple being asked to help?
Taking all ethical, legal and societal security implications aside. Apple might be able to help by writing a “once in a lifetime” custom version of iOS that does two things 1) disable the limit on the number of tries for a passcode and 2) let the device connect to a supercomputer. This in turn would help the FBI, and any other law enforcement agencies that wishes to do so with a lawful court order, crack the device in a short time frame.
So why not help?
Well, up to know I have only described the situation at hand and the FBI’s possible set of solutions. But what happens if Apple complies with the court order? Can this have an actual impact on any of us? In fact, it does, it actually has far reaching implications that are quite important to understand and analyze:
- Creating this custom iOS only for this particular iPhone is practically impossible. In other words, once this cheat / back door / master key is created for this device it could be used in every single iPhone created. A pretty attractive thought for potential Apple hackers and even employees looking for a digital treasure chest.
- In reality, different government agencies and states have hundreds of similar requests, not as high profile as the San Bernardino shootings, but lawful requests nonetheless. As US law stands, if Apple sets a precedent in this case then it would be obliged to help other cases. How many? Of whom? From where? It is easy to see how this can spiral out of control opening up a Pandora’s Box for an Orwellian future not only in the US but around the world too. Would Russia and China also be eligible for this “spying”?
- Oh yes, and remember George Washington? Well the FBI is using the All Writs Act, signed by him in 1789 to argue in favor of them. So the question here as eloquently described by the Guardian: “It’s whether a catch-all law from 1789 can be used to effectively conscript technology companies into producing hacking tools and spyware for the government.”
What is my take?
In short, I am quite skeptical in using a 1789 law to produce a hacking tool to spy on devices. I strongly believe an intra-government panel with help from companies, society and lawmakers should convene, study, analyze and draft a more serious proposal not only for this particular iPhone 5C but for every single future case. I believe there is in fact a fine balance between security and privacy and that as a society we will always struggle to keep that in check; meaning there needs to be a healthy dialogue / discussion between parties involved to avoid ever becoming an Orwellian state. In the meantime, I strongly side on Apple’s side and hope for a more measured outcome that what the FBI is asking for.
For more detailed information on the case look at the following: