This post is part of my new series, Tech OPs, which stand for Technology Opinions. Here I discuss the facts behind a trending tech story and share my two cents about it. Here’s one about Apple, encryption, and what it means for all of us.
DISCLAIMER: This post and its content presents the thoughts of the author of this blog and not of the organization (Cebu Blogging Community).
So I was doing my usual article reading for the day last Wednesday. There were the usual smartphone rumors and other filler news. Then I stumbled upon the news that a federal judge ordered Apple to assist law enforcement with breaking an iPhone of one of the shooters in the San Bernardino case. At first, I thought it was just simple enough that Apple can comply with that right away. Lo and behold, the devil is in the details. This post will explain what the FBI wants Apple to do and why it strongly opposes it so much.
What is Apple ordered to do?
Apple is ordered to create a special version of the iOS software specifically for the iPhone in custody (an iPhone 5c). The software enables the FBI to try to unlock the iPhone through “brute force” or using all possible combinations of the passcode without any issues holding it back due to the security features found in iOS. This way of bypassing the security is called a backdoor.
Why does the FBI need to do this? Can’t they just unlock the phone themselves?
They actually could do the phone unlocking themselves, but the issue here lies on how the iPhone was setup. All iPhones running iOS 8 or later have the data inside them encrypted. To make things worse, the “Erase Data” feature of the iPhone was enabled. The said feature erases all data from the iPhone after 10 failed passcode attempts. It also doesn’t help that there are time delays between each attempt. All they want is to circumvent all these fail-safes that Apple put in place so that they can proceed with their investigation.
What is encryption?
Funny you should ask. Encryption is the scrambling of data being sent to another party so that anyone or anything that tries to snoop in can’t do anything with the data unless they have the key that lets them unscramble the data and acquire the information inside. If words aren’t enough for you to understand what it is, here’s a YouTube video from Austin Evans, member of #TeamCrispy (look that up on Twitter, it’s legit).
Since the video explains properly what encryption is and why it matters, we can move on to some serious questions.
Why is Apple opposing the court order?
Apple is opposing the court order because they DO NOT want to do something that threatens the security of all their customers by creating such special software. Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, mentioned in the letter posted on their website that once such software exists, then that backdoor will be there. No matter what the FBI says about it being JUST for one device, it will always be possible to do it for all devices. There will be legal precedence in doing this sort of thing once the FBI wins this battle.
Does this mean everyone will be affected by this?
YES. Everyone on the planet who owns a digital device will be affected by the end result of this battle. If the FBI gets their way, then they could just ask a judge to issue a court order to create such backdoors. When such backdoors exist, hackers from anywhere can exploit them and create problems for anyone, not just Americans. Who knows, maybe the NBI (National Bureau of Investigation of the Philippines) will take note of this and use this precedent. This will potentially be a scary time for all of us.
Has anyone else taken a side in the Apple/FBI encryption issue?
Yes. Facebook and Twitter has announced their support for Apple in this fight. Google CEO Sundar Pichai offered a somewhat muted support for this as well shortly after NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden posted this tweet:
This is the most important tech case in a decade. Silence means @google picked a side, but it's not the public's. https://t.co/mi5irJcr25
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) February 17, 2016
Maybe it was coincidence? I don’t think so.
Mozilla also offered their support for Apple in this tweet (with a link to a full blog post):
We stand with @Apple on strong #encryption. We should not set a dangerous precedent: https://t.co/lNSAbTO9oE
— Mozilla (@mozilla) February 18, 2016
Are there any updates on this?
Yes, there are. The US DOJ filed a motion on the same thing as the judge’s court order. Apple has now responded to the DOJ filing. It was mentioned that the data that the FBI was looking for can be accessed since the Apple ID password was changed 24 hours AFTER the phone was in custody. Looks like they really took their time with that one. There was also this report that the DOJ thinks that Apple’s defense of encryption is merely a marketing stunt (which Apple reportedly denied). And oh, there was that thing with Donald Trump and his weird and dumb boycott on Apple products (while STILL tweeting from an iPhone! Weird dude).
Honestly, this is a no-brainer. For me, governments will just throw out some random (sometimes stupid) excuses just to get what they want. I understand that they’re just doing their jobs in trying to solve a crime, an act of terrorism no less. I just believe that there are a lot of ways to skin a cat. And they should have gone to Apple the moment that they seized the phone so that maybe they can prepare the stuff since the Apple ID password wasn’t changed at the time.
For me, encryption is CRUCIAL in all our transactions on the internet. Without it, we would not be able to send messages, shop online, or grab a car all from our pockets. We would be too afraid to do these if anyone can just snoop at your information without permission. Besides, even if the FBI wins and a backdoor can be made for the iPhone, criminals could already be one step ahead and use some other method to not get their plans noticed by anyone. What this issue would produce is the loss of safety, security, and privacy of not just Americans, but possibly the entire planet. Do you want to live in a world where you have to be extra careful at all times? I DON’T THINK SO.
So if it wasn’t clear, I am all for Apple’s side not because I am an Apple fan but because I believe that protecting our privacy is very important and if we let the FBI slide, we’re sure to have problems.
Want to read more on this? Here are the articles that I recommend you to read:
The danger of creating an iPhone backdoor (The Verge)
Famed iPhone hacker says backdoor request is a bad idea (Cult of Mac)
FBI is striking at the heart of AAPL’s security system (The Verge)
FBI backdoor request is the biggest test of iPhone security (The Verge)
It’s hard to find knowledgeable people on this topic, but you sound like you know what you’re talking about! Thanks