The conflict that arose this week when Apple CEO Tim Cook said his company will resist a court order to provide the FBI with “reasonable technical assistance” to break into an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino terrorists stunned many observers, because Apple was saying just a few months ago that the encryption on its latest smartphones was so secure that even Apple could not break it.
But it turns out the FBI thought of a way to break into iPhones by having Apple disable a feature that destroys information on a phone if too many incorrect passcodes are entered. This reportedly would be done by Apple using its “master key” to update the phone’s operating-system software to disable this feature.
Getting the information on this phone is crucial to U.S. national security. Its user, Syed Farook, likely was working with others in addition to his wife, Tashfeen Malik, in amassing what law enforcement called a bomb factory in their home. Farook and Malik both swore allegiance to ISIS. Questions need to be resolved as to whether the couple were involved in a broader terrorist conspiracy and whether they were in contact with ISIS members in Syria and Iraq.
Before this week, some members of Congress were discussing forcing Apple and Google, the maker of Android smartphones, to make new operating systems for their phones to allow law enforcement access to gather evidence for criminal and terrorist cases. This was because Apple and Google were responding to court orders to break into their phones with an assertion that this was technically impossible with the new encryption technology.
This included the June 2015 murder of a father of six in Chicago that might be solved if evidence could be retrieved from iPhone 6 and Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge smartphones found at the scene of the crime. An Illinois judge issued a warrant ordering Apple and Google to unlock these phones and share any data they contained with law enforcement. Both companies said they could not comply with the warrant since they did not know the passcodes and were unable to break into the phones. Now we know that Apple (and probably Google) can, in fact, break the encryption on their new smartphones.
Apple is claiming that this is a privacy issue. But the phone’s user is a deceased terrorist, and the phone was not his property – it was owned by San Bernardino County, which does not object to letting law enforcement break into the phone. Apple also asserts that it is being forced to give the government a backdoor that could be used to break into all of its users’ phones. This also is a false argument, since Apple would not be providing a master key to the government but only giving it access to this particular phone.
This development proves what the new encryption on iPhone and Android phones is really about: protecting users from the U.S. government, not from criminals and terrorists, because of the hysteria caused by the leaks of classified information by former NSA technician Edward Snowden. Apple and Google know their younger customers were especially affected by this. It therefore has tried to create the illusion that their phones are completely immune to government snooping. Playing on this fear for greater profits, both companies have tried to make users think their phones are so secure that they will be beyond the reach of court orders.
Many members of Congress believe this is intolerable. As a result, pressure to force phone makers to provide legal backdoors for the government to access smartphones has been mounting. Senator Richard Burr (R., N.C.), the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a December 23 Wall Street Journal op-ed that new smartphone encryption was “enabling murderers, pedophiles, drug dealers and, increasingly, terrorists.”
Apple does not have a leg to stand on in this dispute. It has been forced to change its position from “it’s not possible” – “not possible” to cooperate with legal court orders to break into the phones of terrorists and criminals – to “we refuse to cooperate” with such orders. This latter position is untenable because the vast majority of Americans agree with Senator Burr that they are not entitled to perfect security if it prevents the government from protecting them from bad actors. It’s hard to imagine the courts supporting Apple’s argument that the broader privacy rights of Americans are why it is refusing to help the U.S. government access the smartphone used by a dead terrorist and owned by a county government.
I see a big win coming out of this case for the security of our nation, and a big loss for anti-government privacy fanatics inspired by the traitor Edward Snowden. Given the urgency of this case, let’s hope it is resolved quickly.