Why Apple is right to reject the order to unlock a killer's phone

iPhone unlock

Apple has been ordered by the US courts to help the FBI gain access to data on an iPhone belonging to San Bernardino gunman Syed Rizwan Farook. Farook and his wife killed 14 people in the California city late last year before being shot dead by police.

The FBI says the phone contains information crucial to the investigation, and needs Apple’s help to unlock it. Data on Apple devices is encrypted by default -- and has been since September 2014 -- which means no one, other than the device owner, can access it. And that includes Apple itself.

The encryption offered by Apple is great news for anyone who values their privacy, but not so great news for law enforcement agencies.

Once a device is locked, the only way to unlock it is by entering a passcode and the data will be erased once ten incorrect attempts have been made.

The FBI wants access to the contents of Farook’s iPhone and is asking Apple to do two things:

  • Make changes to Farook’s device, so it’s possible to make unlimited attempts at unlocking it.
  • Make it possible for the FBI to "brute force" attack the phone to speed up the time it will take to find the correct unlock code.

Farook used a four-digit PIN, which means there are 10,000 possible combinations.

Apple says it will contest the court order, and Tim Cook has written an open letter to customers explaining the company’s stance. The letter, in full, states:

A Message to Our Customers

The United States government has demanded that Apple take an unprecedented step which threatens the security of our customers. We oppose this order, which has implications far beyond the legal case at hand.

This moment calls for public discussion, and we want our customers and people around the country to understand what is at stake.

The Need for Encryption

Smartphones, led by iPhone, have become an essential part of our lives. People use them to store an incredible amount of personal information, from our private conversations to our photos, our music, our notes, our calendars and contacts, our financial information and health data, even where we have been and where we are going.

All that information needs to be protected from hackers and criminals who want to access it, steal it, and use it without our knowledge or permission. Customers expect Apple and other technology companies to do everything in our power to protect their personal information, and at Apple we are deeply committed to safeguarding their data.

Compromising the security of our personal information can ultimately put our personal safety at risk. That is why encryption has become so important to all of us.

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.

The San Bernardino Case

We were shocked and outraged by the deadly act of terrorism in San Bernardino last December. We mourn the loss of life and want justice for all those whose lives were affected. 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.

We have great respect for the professionals at the FBI, and we believe their intentions are good. Up to this point, we have done everything that is both within our power and within the law to help them. But now the U.S. government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create. They have asked us to build 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.

The FBI may use different words to describe this tool, but make no mistake: Building a version of iOS that bypasses security in this way would undeniably create a backdoor. And while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control.

The Threat to Data Security

Some would argue that building a backdoor for just one iPhone is a simple, clean-cut solution. But it ignores both the basics of digital security and the significance of what the government is demanding in this case.

In today’s digital world, the "key" to an encrypted system is a piece of information that unlocks the data, and it is only as secure as the protections around it. Once the information is known, or a way to bypass the code is revealed, the encryption can be defeated by anyone with that knowledge.

The government suggests this tool could only be used once, on one phone. But that’s simply not true. Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices. In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks -- from restaurants and banks to stores and homes. No reasonable person would find that acceptable.

The government is asking Apple to hack our own users and undermine decades of security advancements that protect our customers -- including tens of millions of American citizens -- from sophisticated hackers and cybercriminals. The same engineers who built strong encryption into the iPhone to protect our users would, ironically, be ordered to weaken those protections and make our users less safe.

We can find no precedent for an American company being forced to expose its customers to a greater risk of attack. For years, cryptologists and national security experts have been warning against weakening encryption. Doing so would hurt only the well-meaning and law-abiding citizens who rely on companies like Apple to protect their data. Criminals and bad actors will still encrypt, using tools that are readily available to them.

A Dangerous Precedent

Rather than asking for legislative action through Congress, the FBI is proposing an unprecedented use of the All Writs Act of 1789 to justify an expansion of its authority.

The government would have us remove security features and add new capabilities to the operating system, allowing a passcode to be input electronically. This would make it easier to unlock an iPhone by "brute force", trying thousands or millions of combinations with the speed of a modern computer.

The implications of the government’s demands are chilling. If the government can use the All Writs Act to make it easier to unlock your iPhone, it would have the power to reach into anyone’s device to capture their data. The government could extend this breach of privacy and demand that Apple build surveillance software to intercept your messages, access your health records or financial data, track your location, or even access your phone’s microphone or camera without your knowledge.

Opposing this order is not something we take lightly. We feel we must speak up in the face of what we see as an overreach by the U.S. government.

We are challenging the FBI’s demands with the deepest respect for American democracy and a love of our country. We believe it would be in the best interest of everyone to step back and consider the implications.

While we believe the FBI’s intentions are good, it would be wrong for the government to force us to build a backdoor into our products. And ultimately, we fear that this demand would undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect.

Tim Cook

Apple is right to reject this court order, because what is at stake is too valuable to lose. The government is essentially asking Apple to eliminate a crucial feature of iPhone security, and create a master key that can unlock any Apple device.

The government wants us to trust that it will only use this power for good -- to protect its citizens from the bad guys -- but there’s no way this backdoor won’t be misused and abused.

As my colleague Mark Wilson said in the newsroom earlier today: "There would need to be very, very clear guidelines in place before Apple should consider allowing encryption circumvention. It would set a very dangerous precedent if Apple just bent over and took it. Should encryption be breakable for 'known' terrorists? 'Suspected' terrorists? Anyone who has been arrested? Who decides what counts as 'terrorism'? It's not as simple as saying 'that man did a bad thing, he loses the rights other people have'."

It's a slippery slope. It starts off with the FBI asking to view the data on a killer’s phone, and ends with any law enforcement agency being able to snoop on anyone’s phone. And once there’s a backdoor in place, what’s to stop bad guys using it? As Tim Cook said last November following calls from the government to weaken encryption, "You can't have a backdoor that's only for the good guys".

The Information Technology Industry Council (ITI) summed up the situation beautifully around the same time, saying:

Encryption is a security tool we rely on everyday to stop criminals from draining our bank accounts, to shield our cars and airplanes from being taken over by malicious hacks, and to otherwise preserve our security and safety. We deeply appreciate law enforcement’s and the national security community’s work to protect us, but weakening encryption or creating backdoors to encrypted devices and data for use by the good guys would actually create vulnerabilities to be exploited by the bad guys, which would almost certainly cause serious physical and financial harm across our society and our economy. Weakening security with the aim of advancing security simply does not make sense.

This is a hugely important battle for Apple, and one -- for all our sakes -- it desperately needs to win.

Image Credit: Peter Kotoff/ Shutterstock

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