FBI Request Exceeds ‘Just 1 iPhone’

SAN FRANCISCO — After five hours of testimony in the U.S. House of Representatives' Judiciary Committee on Tuesday (March 1), we are still walking the “encryption tightrope” in the Apple vs. FBI debate that is pitting national security against smartphone privacy. Although no resolutions are in sight, the court of public opinion may have turned to favor Apple in what could be construed as a slippery slope argument regarding access to secure technology.

“A lot of people in the room changed their minds today. This didn’t resolve everything but clearly raised the level of the technological debate and what’s at stake here,” said Envisioneering Group Research Director Rick Doherty. “Apple definitely appears to not be the uncaring citizen that so many people have portrayed them to be the last few weeks. And the FBI appears to be less engaged with the intelligence community.”

Tuesday’s hearing concerns a FBI court order that would force Apple to create software to override a security feature in the iPhone 5s belonging to one of the shooters in the Dec. 2 attack in San Bernardino, Calif., which killed 14 people and left 22 injured. Until today, the FBI had maintained that such an override would be specific to one phone and largely painted Apple as uncooperative; Apple says creating such software infringes on their first and fifth Amendment rights while potentially putting technology in the wrong hands.

With such a tool, the FBI hopes to “take away the drooling watch dog that’s going to attack us if we try to get in, and give us time to pick the lock,” FBI director James B. Comey said. “It’s so seductive to [say] that privacy is the ultimate value. In a society where we aspire to be safe…that can’t be true. We have to find a way to have both.”

The software/workaround in question would do the following for the smartphone in question:

  • Do away with data deletion after 10 failed attempts to login
  • Do away with the time delay between successive failed login attempts
  • Rewrite the code that controls the touch screen and allow the FBI to put a probe into the phone and bypass the need to enter numeric digits

The FBI has come under fire for lacking sufficient knowledge of Apple security systems; Comey also admitted that the agency did not ask for Apple’s source code or try to duplicate the shooter’s phone to bypass the login timing mechanism. In a motion to vacate, Apple wrote that the “FBI, without consulting Apple or reviewing its public guidance regarding iOS, changed the iCloud password associated with one of the attacker's accounts, foreclosing the possibility of the phone initiating an automatic iCloud back-up of its data to a known Wi-Fi network …which could have obviated the need to unlock the phone.” Apple wrote that if the FBI had consulted them first, litigation may not be necessary.

During the hearing, Apple General Counsel and Senior Vice President Bruce Sewell told the committee that his company had worked diligently with the FBI but was unwilling to essentially create a government operating system. The biggest fear is that such “untested functionality” could easily slip into the hands of criminals or enemy governments and open a Pandora’s box of evil possibilities.

Apple General Counsel Bruce Sewell.

Apple General Counsel Bruce Sewell.

“Building that software tool would not affect just one iPhone, it would affect all iPhones. The FBI would likely use this as precedence for other cases,” Sewell said. “We see ourselves as being in an arms race with criminals, cyber terrorists, hackers. We’re trying to provide a safe and secure place for the users of our devices to be assured that their information cannot be accessed, hacked or stolen.”

The iOS operating system – the iPhone 5s used by the San Bernardino shooter ran iOS 9 — was criticized for its impenetrability during the hearing. Cyrus Vance, New York County’s district attorney, said “criminals are literally laughing at us” and added that technology companies are responsible for adapting their products. Vance had earlier stated that he would use the override technology on more than 170 additional cases – despite the fact that a US magistrate judge in New York ruled Monday that the government can't force Apple to help law enforcement unlock an iPhone using the All Writs Act, with regard to a drug trafficking case in Brooklyn.

To read the rest of this article, visit EBN sister site EE Times.

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