Apple ordered to break iPhone security and a bigger picture

Anthony Caruana
18 February, 2016
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Apple has been directed by a federal court judge in the US to provide “reasonable technical assistance” to bypass the security features of an iPhone that is part of the evidence in the trial of Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the terrorists alleged to have been involved in an attack in San Bernardino, California last December.

Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, penned a public letter saying this creates a dangerous precedent that will compromise the security of every iPhone user on the planet. More broadly, if Apple is forced to comply with this curative then Google is likely to find itself in the same position in future as it uses similar means to protect Android devices.

The issue is the iPhone’s encryption keys are not held by Apple in any way. The only way for Apple to access the data on your device is for it to create a hacked version of iOS with a backdoor, which is what US Attorney Patricia A Donahue is asking Apple to do.

The US Government has taken some extraordinary steps to access the data of individuals and organisations.

It has been reported that the NSA intercepts networking equipment en route to customers, installs hardware so it can spy on network traffic, and then reseals the equipment before delivering it to the actual customer. And there’s no doubt we are under more surveillance than ever before with metadata retention in Australia already undergoing scope creep.

Fortunately, Apple’s US$180 billion bank balance means it has the means to fight such an order all the way through the highest courts in the US and probably any other country that wants to try and compel them to ‘hack’ iPhones.

Apple has five days to respond to this request. I suspect Cook’s letter is a strong indicator of such a response.

Opinion

In 1755, Benjamin Franklin wrote, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

The freedom to use your smartphone is taken as a right today. And we do so believing that the information we store on those devices – which is often very private and personal – should only be shared with our permission.

It is true criminal elements use these rights to their advantage. But asking Apple to provide a backdoor into the approximately one billion iPhones that have been sold, and not to mention how such a ruling will set a precedent affecting every manufacturer of devices that hold encrypted data, seems like smashing a walnut with a battleship.

It is in, indeed, the thin edge of the wedge.

Apple is right to fight this and every computer user on the planet, that encrypts data, needs to follow this closely and throw their support behind Apple.

Some will argue that ‘it’s not a problem if you’ve got nothing to hide’. Well, laws can be changed and made retrospective – David Hicks found this out in 2007. That’s not to make excuses for Hicks – I have no opinion one way or the other as to whether he broke the law – but laws can change and what you think is OK today may not be tomorrow.

Creating a backdoor into any operating system’s security will, inevitably, lead to a loss of security and device integrity.

The US Government, as the Edward Snowden leaks made abundantly clear, is unable to perfectly secure its own systems.

No one can.

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