What the FBI wants from Apple regarding the San Bernardino killings case and why Apple is refusing

The FBI wants Apple to facilitate a backdoor entry into an iPhone of a terrorist
The FBI wants Apple to facilitate a backdoor entry into an iPhone of a terrorist

It makes one wonder whether it is a freedom issue, an ethics issue or a legal issue. The Federal Bureau of Investigation wants Apple to create a backdoor entry into an iPhone 5c that belonged to a terrorist that killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California in December 2015. Naturally the law enforcement agency would like to know with whom the terrorist, Syed Farook, was interacting using his iPhone before orchestrating the massacre.

Despite the extreme situation, Apple has refused to comply with the demand of the FBI. In an open letter to Apple customers, Apple CEO Tim Cook wrote, specifically about the San Bernardino case and the subsequent request by the FBI to create another version of the operating system that would allow backdoor entry into an iPhone:

We were shocked and outraged by the deadly act of terrorism in San Bernardino last December. We mourn the loss of life and want justice for all those whose lives were affected. The FBI asked us for help in the days following the attack, and we have worked hard to support the government’s efforts to solve this horrible crime. We have no sympathy for terrorists.

When the FBI has requested data that’s in our possession, we have provided it. Apple complies with valid subpoenas and search warrants, as we have in the San Bernardino case. We have also made Apple engineers available to advise the FBI, and we’ve offered our best ideas on a number of investigative options at their disposal.

We have great respect for the professionals at the FBI, and we believe their intentions are good. Up to this point, we have done everything that is both within our power and within the law to help them. But now the U.S. government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create. They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone.

Specifically, the FBI wants us to make a new version of the iPhone operating system, circumventing several important security features, and install it on an iPhone recovered during the investigation. In the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession.

The FBI may use different words to describe this tool, but make no mistake: Building a version of iOS that bypasses security in this way would undeniably create a backdoor. And while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control.

So should Apple help the FBI get backdoor entry into the iPhone that belonged to a terrorist responsible for the killing of 14 innocent people, or should the company refuse it on the premise that this would unleash a force that they won’t be able to control, the privacy of all their customers using iPhones will be at risk?

What takes precedence in such cases? The immediate need to solve a heinous crime and deliver justice to the victims or a more widespread need to protect people’s privacy from prying eyes? What is the guarantee that once such a backdoor entry has been created by Apple the software will not be used to get backdoor entry into other phones?

What is this iPhone backdoor entry that the FBI demands?

Apple uses its own encryption methods to protect its customers’ data. The encryption technology used by Apple is so advanced that even Apple cannot hack into a customer’s iPhone once the customer has gotten possession of it. The FBI wants Apple to install a version of iOS on the terrorists iPhone so that it can be hacked into by brute force. In simple terms what it means is the company needs to create a software that makes it possible to hack into its own devices.

Devices like the iPhone are encrypted using a particular key. Nobody has access to that key, not even Apple, if you are to believe Tim Cook. So if the key does not exist, the device cannot be decrypted. The only way it can be decrypted is by inserting deliberate loopholes. The FBI wants Apple to circumvent security software on Farook’s iPhone so that the FBI can access the data in it.

Why doesn’t the FBI simply use a brute force software to make millions of guesses, as it is often done by hackers? Beyond a certain number of login attempts, the iPhone may “brick” itself and self-destroy. In an iPhone, if you enter an incorrect passcode 10 times within a short period of time the phone will lock itself for a specific amount of time before it accepts the passcode again. If you have enabled the auto-wipe feature, the phone may even destroy all the information after these many attempts.

Right now the problems being faced by the FBI are, according to this comprehensive blog post by Dan Guido,

  • After a particular number of incorrect passcode attempts iOS may completely wipe the data off the phone, making it totally impossible to obtain the necessary information.
  • In order to be able to access the iPhone, the passcodes must be entered by hand.
  • After every unsuccessful attempt to log into the phone, iOS introduces a delay for the next attempt.

These are the features that the FBI wants Apple to circumvent. The FBI wants Apple to

  • Bypass or disable the auto-erase function whether or not it has been enabled so that an unlimited number of attempts can be made to log into the phone.
  • The device should be able to accept login attempts using a device rather than having to do it manually so that an unlimited number of attempts can be made.
  • While the software is being used to try out an unlimited number of passwords, iOS will not introduce delays for the subsequent attempts.

Basically, FBI wants to use the conventional method of hacking into a digital device and the current iOS consideration makes it practically impossible. The more you try to get into an iPhone using wrong credentials, the harder it gets for the next attempt. That’s basically the summary of the problem and the solution demanded by the FBI.

Should Apple refuse to unlock the iPhone of a terrorist responsible for killing 14 people in San Bernardino?

This is a difficult question. On one side is at stake the privacy of its millions of customers and on the other side the justice that needs to be delivered to the families of the victims and the victims themselves, is at stake. What is paramount? The privacy of people or the need to solve a crime so that future crimes cannot be committed?

Both the choices are difficult because whether Apple decides in favour of the FBI demand or against it, it’s the people who are being exposed to danger. By not allowing the FBI to hack into the iPhone of a dangerous terrorist Apple is encouraging future terrorists to use its devices knowing quite well that the information contained within their devices will never be accessible to the law enforcement agencies. By allowing the FBI to hack into the iPhone, as rightly mentioned by Tim Cook, it will be creating a dangerous precedence because then everybody would want to hack into everybody’s phone at one pretext or another, defeating the entire purpose of creating sophisticated encryption technology.

Should there be special provisions for extenuating circumstances? Should companies like Apple be forced to comply with legal requirements when heinous crimes take place and such heinous crimes involve Apple devices? After all, Apple does comply with Chinese laws as reported in this QZ post.

This is not just a legal/technology dilemma. It needs philosophical deliberation. Criminologists, digital technology experts, legal experts and sociologists all need to sit together and arrive at a conclusion which is going to have a long impact on future generations.

Meanwhile Apple has gotten support from Google, with CEO Sundar Pichai calling the FBI demand it troubling precedent. This is what he tweeted in Apple’s support:

Although I wonder how the privacy of a proven terrorist be compared with the privacy of a normal customer.

Support for Apple has also come from Twitter:

This Mashable video aims to explain the entire Apple vs FBI controversy in 3 minutes:

 

 

About Amrit Hallan
Amrit Hallan is the founder of TechBakBak.com. He writes about technology not because "he loves to write about technology", he actually believes that it makes the world a better place. On Twitter you can follow him at @amrithallan

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