What’s Behind Apple’s Fight with the FBI?
By now, you’ve probably read the headlines and seen the television news coverage of the battle between Apple and the FBI over the San Bernardino shooter’s encrypted iPhone. There are a lot of complicated factors at play, both technical and legal, the outcome of which could have broad implications for the level of privacy we can reasonably expect to have with our smartphones and tablets.
If you’re confused about what exactly is going on, you are not alone. Here’s a breakdown in layman’s terms:
Apple improved its security a few years ago with the release of iOS 8. Prior to this, Apple could bypass your passcode and access your information. With the last two releases of Apple’s software, that bypass is no longer possible. The phone encrypts all of your information using a combination of your chosen passcode and a secret key that’s unique to every phone.
Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the San Bernardino shooting suspects, was using an iPhone 5C running Apple’s new, protected, software. The FBI has access to this phone, but cannot unlock it; if you enter an incorrect passcode 10 times, the phone deletes the correct passcode, and as a result the data on the phone is gone forever.
A judge ordered Apple to develop a special version of its software in which privacy protections are deliberately weakened or turned off. The judge did not order Apple to unlock the phone – because Apple doesn’t have the capability to do so. Rather, it wants this new, weakened software loaded onto Farook’s device so that the FBI can try as many possible password combinations to unlock the device – a process called “brute-forcing”.
Seems pretty straightforward, right? Not so fast. Privacy advocates are concerned about government overreach, especially in light of some of the questionable activities the government has taken which were detailed in the information leaked by Edward Snowden. Cybersecurity professionals are concerned about the permanent construction of a “backdoor” to modern smartphones – not because of distrust of the government – but for this reason: once you construct a back door, there’s no guarantee that it can’t be exploited by hackers and criminals. Apple has taken a stand against the FBI and in favor of the absolute protection of its customers’ data.
In short, this is yet another battle in the war between privacy and security as we define who we are as a society in a post-9/11 landscape.