What does the FBI think is on terrorist’s iPhone, anyway? A fight, perhaps

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Something has been bothering me about this very public Apple vs. FBI UFC legal battle.  Recall that a California judge has ordered Apple to help the FBI circumvent encryption on an iPhone used by Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the San Bernardino terrorists. Apple is refusing.

Here’s my question: What does the FBI think it can get by hacking into the phone?  It’s been said that data on the phone might help the agency piece together where the San Bernadino shooters went between time of the attack and their deaths in a firefight with police hours later.  But cell tower location data would help the FBI place them, probably even better than information on the phone.  If the concern is who they called, emailed or texted with, metadata collected by service providers would provide the FBI with that.  True, some contents on the phone might be unavailable elsewhere — but what would that be?  Remember, the FBI is not in hot pursuit. The two suspects in the crime are dead.  There is no additional suspect, perhaps someone who helped plot the attacks, that we know of.  So what does the FBI want?

I think the FBI wants a fight.

I just talked for a long time with someone who would know, and he called the case a “Stalking Horse.”   The data on Farook’s iPhone isn’t the point.  The point is to convince a judge and the public that encryption makes the world a more dangerous place.

This is about as good a case as the feds could find. Two heinous killers — and terrorists who deserve no protection under the law.  It’s wasn’t even their phone (it was a work phone issued to Farook, owned by San Bernardino County).

“If ever there was a sympathetic case, it’s this one,” my source said.

And the FBI isn’t even asking for an encryption key.  They just want Apple to build a one-off piece of software to disable the phone’s self-destruct sequence so the FBI can brute-force guess its way to the unlock code for the device.

Just this once.

Let’s get a few things straight.  Encryption with a back door isn’t encryption any longer.  Building a trick to get around implementation of encryption isn’t encryption any longer. There is nothing “one-off” about what the government is asking for here.  It’s asking for a permanent, legal right to demand that tech companies never again respect users’ rights to keep private files private. If it succeeds, requests to do it again will come fast and furious.

Federal authorities have been doing this kind of thing for decades.  It can’t break encryption so it develops other ways around it. Fifteen years ago, when I wrote about Magic Lantern, people were stunned that the FBI would develop a computer virus to capture targets’ passphrases so the agency could unlock encrypted files on suspects’ computers.

These are thorny issues.  If someone convinced me that an attack was immanent and it could be thwarted by freeing data on Farook’s phone, perhaps I’d be moved by that argument.  And of course, you never know where the needle in that haystack might be.  But we don’t live in a society where the government can look in any pile of hay for a needle, whenever it wants. Not yet, anyway.  I think we should try to keep it that way.

I’m glad Apple is sticking up for itself, and for its customers today.  Tim Cook’s letter to customers is thoughtful and clear, and it’s something I’d urge all American citizens to read.

“We believe it would be in the best interest of everyone to step back and consider the implications,” he said. “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….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.”

If the FBI wanted a fight, I believe the agency has one.

A public dialog about encryption would be an excellent outcome. Anyone who looks at the issue tends to come to the conclusion that breaking encryption makes the world a more dangerous place, not a safer place. You should judge for yourself.  You can start here on my site  Better yet, read this paper from July authored by a set of technology experts called “Keys Under Doormats.”

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About Bob Sullivan 1344 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

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