Apple versus the FBI: FBI case looking shakier by the day

Anthony Caruana
24 March, 2016
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Normally, the role of a reporter is to deliver the news with impartiality. But I have to admit it’s difficult for me to write this report without feeling the FBI has been taking us for a ride in its court case, where it is seeking a court to direct Apple to create a new piece of software so it can access the contents of the iPhone 5c used by the San Bernardino terrorists.

In March FBI director James Comey said, “We have engaged all parts of the US Government to find a way to access the device without Apple’s help. If we could have done this quietly and privately, we would have done it.”

Now, it has been established that sister agency, the Drug Enforcement Administration, or DEA, has been working with an Israeli firm to do exactly what they are asking Apple to do – overcome the encryption on an iPhone.

The service the DEA is using, to overcome the encryption on an iPhone 6, is called CellBrite.

It’s important to note that both the FBI and Department of Justice (DOJ) insisted they had no other option but to compel Apple to assist them. The DOJ is the overarching agency within which both the FBI and DEA fall.

It’s hard to hear this latest revelation and not believe the FBI and DOJ are trying to use the courts to bypass the privacy protections software makers put in place for all citizens.

As I’ve said earlier, in my brief history of Apple versus the FBI, there has been significant rhetoric from law enforcement since iOS 8 was released. And, really, this all goes back to when strong encryption algorithms were declared free speech, and therefore freely accessible to all, in the landmark Bernstein v. US Department of Justice case from 1999.

The FBI has also said the ruling it is seeking in the San Bernardino case is narrow and only applies to that specific case. That’s hard to believe when there are over a dozen similar cases in play, such as the one in Brooklyn where a judge ruled against the FBI.

It’s said that everyone is entitled to their own opinion. I disagree.

I believe you should only be allowed to your own opinion if you can support it with facts.

My opinion is the FBI has been looking for an opportunity to use the courts to weaken personal privacy through encryption and it has used a highly emotive case of domestic terrorism to garner public opinion.

It has said it is only seeking support for this one case, but has many others being played out in courts across the US.

The FBI and DOJ have said, on several occasions, that they have no other way to overcome the iPhone’s encryption. Yet a sister agency has been working with another firm to do exactly this.

The FBI has characterised its case as asking Apple to break into one iPhone. That’s not what it has been asking. It is asking a court to compel Apple to write new software and provide signing keys so it can install it.

In fact, a recent DOJ filing suggested it may compel Apple to hand over the source code for iOS. If that was granted, and it had the appropriate code signing key, it would be able to create its own versions of iOS which users could potentially be fooled into installing.

And imagine if someone was able to access and release that source code and key without the FBI’s consent? And if you think that’s highly unlikely, I put the case of Edward Snowden to you – a well-placed, patient, highly intelligent insider with the knowledge and motive to find the software and ‘liberate’ it.

What do you think?

2 Comments

2 people were compelled to have their say. We encourage you to do the same..

  1. Robert Blackham says:

    Clearly it would be unwise for a phone maker to create a single master key that opens every phone. On the other hand it is easy to think of plausible scenarios much more serious and urgent than the San Bernardino shooters. But I think the conflict between encryption/privacy and law enforcement is solvable. It should be possible to put into the chipset of each phone a serial number (which they do anyway) and an individual secret key, which overrides its security features. The phone maker would not keep a copy of the secret key, nor a method to recover it, but hands over the serial number / secret key combination for each phone to be held in escrow by a central registry. The registry could be kept in a bank vault and kept offline (not hackable). The registry would only release the secret key to one phone with a court order, subject to legislation about how serious a crime or security threat has to be. For example a bomb threat would qualify, but tax evasion might not. The release of one key for one phone would not compromise the security of any other phone in the world, because every secret key is different and only works on the phone it was made for. Each country where smartphones are manufactured could keep its own key registry, and police forces would cooperate across borders to deal with terrorism cases as they do now.

  2. udi . says:

    I think this author has hit the nail on the head. Authorities the world over are keen to gain and maintain access to our private information. As has been thoroughly demonstrated, The US government and its agencies (amongst others) are willing to use and have used any means at their disposal, legal and otherwise, to get that access.

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