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Apple battles FBI over iPhone backdoor


Apple‘s standoff with the the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) continues to garner a tremendous amount of attention across the globe as the technology giant battles a federal court order that would force it to a unlock an iPhone used by a terrorist in December’s San Bernardino massacre.

Last week, the company refused to override security features on the phone. Specifically, Apple claimed the FBI wanted it to make a new version of the iPhone operating system in order to circumvent several important security features, and install it on an iPhone recovered during the investigation. The software, which does not exist today, would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession. Other stories in circulation have stated that the FBI is seeking a mechanism from Apple that would provide it with unlimited access to the iPhone passcode unlock function, so it can run its own phone unlock algorithm without hindrance.

Apple Inc. CEO Tim Cook said that opening a phone using such software would create a dangerous precedent that would threaten data security for millions by essentially creating a “master backdoor” that could later be duplicated and used against other phones. Cook said creating such software to break into a locked iPhone would be “bad news” and that Apple “would never write it”. In an interview, he said any such software would be the “equivalent of cancer”.

The government, in contrast, says this is a one-time request and argues that getting information from the iPhone is a matter of national security. FBI Director James Comey this week told Congress that while there are many benefits to encryption and privacy, law enforcement requires quality data to protect the public. He said law enforcement agencies require court orders, such as search warrants, which provide access to mobile devices, in order to maintain law and order. He warned that if law enforcement agencies lose access to information due to encryption or due to a lack of judicial procedures that permit for fulsome criminal investigations, there could be dire consequences. Comey argued that losing the ability to access data harms law enforcement’s ability to find and thwart illegal activity.

Apple wholeheartedly rejects that position. In a filing, issued this week to respond to the court order, Apple said: “This is not a case about one isolated iPhone. Rather, this case is about the Department of Justice and the FBI seeking through the courts a dangerous power that Congress and the American people have withheld: the ability to force companies like Apple to undermine the basic security and privacy interests of hundreds of millions of individuals around the globe.”

Apple effectively is challenging the government’s position, which would compel the technology company to hack its own users. Apple maintains that such an approach would undermine decades of security advancements that protect customers, including tens of millions of American citizens, from sophisticated hackers and cybercriminals. The company objects to using its own engineers who built strong encryption into the iPhone to ironically weaken those protections and make Apple users less safe.

Apple further noted in its court order response: “In furtherance of its law enforcement interests, the government had the opportunity to seek amendments to existing law, to ask Congress to adopt the position it urges here. But rather than pursue new legislation, the government backed away from Congress and turned to the courts, a forum ill-suited to address the myriad competing interests, potential ramifications, and unintended consequences presented by the government’s unprecedented demand. And more importantly, by invoking “terrorism” and moving ex parte behind closed courtroom doors, the government sought to cut off debate and circumvent thoughtful analysis.”

The outcome of this legal battle, which potentially could end up in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, will have a major effect upon the high-tech sector when considering the balance between national security and civil liberties. American public opinion remains highly divided, but IT security analysts seem united in their opposition of government winning access to a backdoor.

As iPhone forensic expert Jonathan Zdziarski said in a recent blog post: “Not only is Apple being ordered to compromise their own devices; they’re being ordered to give that golden key to the government, in a very roundabout sneaky way.”

“What the FBI has requested will inevitably force Apple’s methods out into the open, where they can be ingested by government agencies looking to do the same thing. They will also be exposed to private forensics companies, who are notorious for reverse engineering and stealing other people’s intellectual property. Should Apple comply in providing a tool, it will inevitably end up abused and in the wrong hands.”

In Apple’s filing, the company notes: “No court has ever granted the government power to force companies like Apple to weaken its security systems to facilitate the government’s access to private individuals’ information.”

Other companies are also wary, since if the government can set a legal precedent and force one major tech company to make its own devices insecure, in theory, the government would be able to do the same to other businesses. In a world where a growing constellation of devices are being bound by the so-called Internet of Things, such a scenario had raised alarm bells for both consumers and businesses alike.

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