By: Leo J. Schenk – Columnist, Junior
On Feb. 16, Apple released a letter entitled “A Message to our Customers.” Despite the title, this letter appears to be addressed to more than just those who own Apple products. The message from Apple is a plea for support in its current struggle with the FBI over the iPhone of one San Bernardino shooter. Normally, Apple complies with government mandates, both for information and to unlock a phone, but this is not a normal case. The FBI is requesting that Apple develop new software, which would compromise the security of iOS devices: The FBI would be able to install it and attempt numerous unlock codes without the phone wiping data. They claim they will only use it once.
At first glance, citizens may be inclined to support the government. The FBI simply does this to find more evidence on a shooter in a very recent national tragedy and terrorist situation. One may think they need to get into the phone for the information. Well, this becomes problematic for several reasons, first of which is whether or not they actually need to access the phone.
The FBI and Justice Department have a long history of working with technology firms, including Apple, to access the information of suspects. In this case, they are claiming that the phone will include valuable location and communication data about the suspect from the time of the shooting. This may sound reasonable—if one ignores the fact that they don’t need access to the device to acquire any of this data. They have, and often do, receive all of this information from the service provider (e.g., Verizon). One could make the case that they think some specific kind of data is only stored on the phone (despite how unlikely that is), but should that be true, the sheer precedent of what they are asking is staggering for corporate and individual freedoms.
This FBI request actually is not for data from the phone. Apple can typically do that remotely—but not in this case due to encryption of the device—and have historically done so promptly. No, the FBI is requesting Apple create an entirely new version of their mobile phone operating system designed to be easy to hack into. This is partially because the FBI doesn’t have the best hackers, as John McAfee claims in an op-ed article in the Business Insider: “And why do the best hackers on the planet not work for the FBI? The FBI will not hire anyone with a 24-inch purple Mohawk, 10-gauge ear piercings, and a tattooed face who demands to smoke weed while working and won’t work for less than a half-million dollars a year.”
If too many passwords are attempted for the encryption key, the phone deletes all of its data, and without that key, the data is completely jumbled and incoherent. That fact makes encryption the most secure form of data storage today. So, the government is requesting Apple create a tool to make up for the government’s own inability to harm the security of Apple’s customers—and its own citizens. The precedent set by this is incredibly dangerous, as the government can force any private entity to functionally become a government agency, should they be incapable of completing a task on their own. That concerning precedent is enough for me, but the security situation is paramount to the world.
As pointed out by McAfee, the FBI does not have the world’s best hackers. However, other governments will hire these people, and if they don’t, these “black hat” hackers exist and have the capability to enter almost any database on the planet. Thus, the security implications for this ruling extend to the core of our personal security, especially with our phones increasingly becoming the access point to people’s bank data among other sensitive information. When there is a master key that can break into any phone system, even if the FBI super pinky promises that it will never be used on any other device, as soon as this tool is created, it can and will be found. When this back door is created, there is no longer any guarantee of any security on encrypted systems, and with the current situation of the world, endangering all of Apple’s customers as such and making the precedent to have every mobile system in the world compromised, anything that can go wrong will. This is a strange situation, where a private, multibillion-dollar company has taken up the cause of individual freedoms and security against the federal government.