Apple Vs the FBI

6 years ago


Yesterday, the FBI filed an order compelling Apple to unlock an iPhone used by Syed Farook, one of the attackers in the San Bernardino shooting incident late last year which left 14 people dead.

Shortly thereafter, Apple CEO Tim Cook published a bold statement indicating that Apple planned to fight the order. Apple was joined by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which said it would aid  in the fight.

We’ve already covered the nuts and bolts of the request, as well as Cook’s response and the White House’s response to that response. You can read those for a primer. There has been a lot of ink spilled and there will likely be a lot more, but there are a few questions that I think deserve a closer look — and there is a broader point to be made that will likely get obfuscated by people pursuing technical details rather than implications.

This current order is all about Apple refusing to unlock a single device for the FBI. It is not to be confused with the related, but bigger, battle over the government forcing tech companies to weaken their encryption by introducing a ‘secret’ key that only they have.

The key question of the day is this: Why is Apple fighting not to unlock a terrorist’s iPhone, instead of waiting to fight their big battle over encryption back doors? Let’s dissect it.

The Ask

The government wants Apple to create a ‘one-off’ version of iOS that it could install on this device with three key changes:

  1. Disable or bypass the auto-erase function of iOS. This erases your phone if too many wrong passwords are input. A commonly enabled setting on corporate phones — which the iPhone 5c owned by the government agency for which Farook worked — is.
  2. Remove the delay on password inputs so that the FBI can ‘guess’ the passcode on the phone quicker, without it locking them out for minutes or hours, which is what iOS does to stop any random thief from doing this kind of thing. The inputs would be lowered to around 80 milliseconds, which would allow the password to be guessed in under an hour if it were 4 digits and significantly longer if it were more.
  3. Allow the FBI to submit passcode via the physical port on the phone, or a wireless protocol like Bluetooth or WiFi.

The final condition there is the scariest, and the one that Apple objects to the most. Don’t get me wrong. Cook’s letter clearly states that Apple is opposed to all of the conditions, but that last one is different. It is asking Apple to add a vulnerability to its software and devices, not just ‘remove’ a roadblock.