Microsoft stands with Apple against the FBI

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Microsoft will join Apple against the FBI and U.S. Justice Department, filing a friend-of-court—or amicus—brief in a case going to court tomorrow. The government wants Apple to create a special version of iOS, referred to by critics as FBIOS, to break into an iPhone 5c security feature. The device manufacturer argues that compliance would set a precedent that would give law enforcement carte blanche with other mobile devices.

Brad Smith, Microsoft's chief legal counsel, says the company "wholeheartedly supports Apple"—a statement that eradicates any potential confusion caused by cofounder Bill Gates. In an interview with Financial Times two days ago, Gates supported the government's demands. I responded, calling his position a "catastrophic occurrence that demands current chief executive Satya Nadella's official response. There needs to be clear policy about government backdoors and the position with respect to the San Bernardino shooting iPhone". The company's position is now unequivocally clear—presuming the legal filing fits with "wholeheartedly".

Smith publicly disclosed Microsoft's plans during testimony before the House Judiciary Committee today.

At issue, as the case goes to the first of presumably many court hearings is "he said, she said". Apple says compliance with the order will set a dangerous precedent. The government disagrees. ESET security researcher Stephen Cobb explains the implications in an analysis posted by BetaNews today:

There is no technical or legal basis for saying this case is a one- off. If Apple complies with the current court order and creates a version of the OS that facilitates access to this one iPhone, it can be used on other iPhones. Other law enforcement agencies will join the line that is already forming to demand Apple’s assistance with other iPhones, and Apple will have no basis to refuse because that’s the way the legal system works...

if Apple loses in court, a further precedent will be set, one that can be used in cases impacting many aspects of our digital life. Any number of agencies will have a strong legal basis for requiring any hardware and software makers to selectively turn off security features to assist government investigations.

Meaning: The implications are industrywide, not just about Apple opening a floodgate of government intrusions into iPhones. Microsoft's support seems almost silly given Windows Phone's collapsing market share. But precedent on the single iPhone could touch other software—or hardware if considering Surface series devices.

But that's a simplification. Microsoft and other iOS app developers typically rely on the platform's built-in encryption technologies to protect customer data. Apple calls FBIOS a backdoor, but that's just one of potentially many others. Consider the instance of a Microsoft customer whose data, while protected in the company's cloud or in PC applications, is grabbed from iPhone—effectively a backdoor's backdoor. Microsoft could resist government requests to break its own encryption only to see the customer data exposed on iPhone.

Photo Credit:  tankist276/Shutterstock

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