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Apple FBI legal battle

Unlocking the Apple iPhone security debate

February 26, 2016

By Alexander Lucas

There are many reasons to worry about your digital data: criminal breaches, government overreach and intrusive advertising, to name a few. Since Edward Snowden revealed the extent of governmental collection of data, there has been a public backlash and concern for the privacy of our digital devices.

This has set the stage for the current showdown between Apple and the FBI. Yet despite the fact the actual details of this case (more on this later) are neither unique nor exceptional, it has touched off a verbal standoff between technology giants and the federal government.

The general public is just as divided. According to one survey by VRGE, about half of Americans believe Apple should be required to unlock a phone. A more recent survey from Pew Research Center finds 38 percent believe Apple should not cooperate.

We wanted to find out what IT pros think, so we put it out for discussion in our LinkedIn community. While there’s still some division in opinion, clearly there is more support for Apple in our comment threads:

  • “Something I can finally support Apple on. WOW never thought that would ever happen!” – Alan S., LAN Administrator
  • “What the FBI is trying to do is FORCE Apple to create something that doesn't currently exist...and that, in my opinion, is both unconstitutional and unconscionable.” – William H., ITSM / ServiceNow Platform Manager
  • “In this case the government is trying to force Apple to create a backdoor for their product which would potentially open it up to every criminal.” – Mark L., Chief Information Officer

While there are a lot of important issues here, it would be impossible to do an exhaustive breakdown of the entire legal case. For the sake of expediency, I will be referring to the San Bernardino shooting event and the evidence in the case, though I will not go into a broader summary of those details.

National security considerations

In the case of terrorism and the need for National Security, I think that law enforcement should be allowed to require that they are given access to the device.” - Paul G., Principal Consultant

Apple and the FBI work together all the time to legally hand over customer data for the purposes of criminal proceedings. According to prosecutors in a New York criminal case, Apple has unlocked phones for authorities at least 70 times in the past. That is not to mention the iCloud backup data that is supplied with valid search warrants. In the current case, it seems the government already has access to backups within a month of the San Bernardino shooting.

The debate shifts to whether Apple should be compelled to break their own software. According to this excellent article from Trail of Bits, it should be feasible to disable the auto-erasing feature on the suspect’s iPhone 5C to allow the government to do a brute-force password attack on the phone. It should also be possible to do this without endangering anyone else’s phones by keeping the procedure within the confines of the Apple campus. You can load new firmware via cable as long as it is digitally signed by Apple.

Experts in the private and governmental sectors contradict each other on this point. Apple CEO Tim Cook contends, "The government suggests this tool could only be used once, on one phone. But that’s simply not true. Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices."

The part of this debate that many have missed is that the phone’s owner (Farook's employer) has given approval and the FBI has obtained a search warrant. There is, in practice, no privacy to invade in this specific case. Just as an employer’s IT department has the right to log and review the practices of employers on their equipment, the San Bernardino County Health Department has the legal right to access the phones they supplied to their employees.

Privacy and the slippery slope

"I believe Apple is right. This can only cause damage to privacy and the US tech industry.” - Glenn P., Network Administrator

The tricky part of this is in Apple’s claim that once created, this master key would be able to get into all other iOS devices. This is truly a horrific outcome—and one many in the intelligence community seem to welcome.

There have been multiple attempts over the years, including the infamous Clipper Chip, to create government backdoors for electronic communication. In our heightened fear of terrorist attacks, these requests are once again surfacing, though they are nearly universally opposed by technology companies. With a single exceptional-access mechanism in electronic security, hackers could more easily break into many more accounts by gaining access to that single mechanism.

Furthermore, as Apple rightly assumes, if they perform this type of modification on one phone, they will become more likely to have to comply with all future requests, even on newer and more secure iPhones. And if they are asked to do this type of work for law enforcement, they will also be pressured to make it even easier for law enforcement to undo the auto-erase function, thereby weakening the security of the phone for all consumers.

This also does not take into account all the other tech giants who have no interest in breaking their own privacy standards for law enforcement. Within days of Apple’s refusal to comply, many others tech leaders voiced support of Apple’s concern, including those at Twitter, Facebook, Google, Mozilla, WhatsApp and Microsoft. They realize a move by Apple to comply would set a precedent for them as well.


Just like our readers, I am of two minds on this.

I believe people should be protected from unknown data gathering and overreaching surveillance, as well as be responsibly protected from cybercriminals. I vigorously oppose any attempt at a mechanism to allow law enforcement access to any electronic device it wants.

However, in this very specific case, I believe the FBI is in the right, though they are unlikely to find anything of use on the phone. Since the phone belongs to the county, the FBI has attained proper search warrants and the phone could contain potential evidence in a terrorist activity, there is a reasonable expectation of cooperation from Apple, as long as the break can be done in a way that doesn't affect any other users outside of the scope of the criminal proceedings.

Since both sides disagree on the very last part of this point and the broader related aspects of security vs. privacy, this fight will likely drag on and involve congressional hearings, as Apple CEO Tim Cook is now calling for.

What do you think about the standoff, and how do you think it will end? If you want to check out more about this ongoing story, I would encourage you to read these excellent sources of background information:

From Apple:
Detailed Analysis:

A self-styled storyteller, Alexander Lucas loves to share his vast knowledge of tech, innovation and design trivia. TEKsystems’ resident video designer is also an avid history buff and writes about technology innovation through time.

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