Apple refuses United States federal magistrate Judge Sheri Pym’s request to develop a “backdoor” to the iPhone to help the Federal Bureau of Investigation with their investigations with the recent San Bernardino shootings this past week.
In a public post on Apple.com, chief executive Tim Cook explains the company’s refusal of the demand of the FBI outlines the need to protect citizen privacy and the threat to data security.
“We have great respect for the professionals at the FBI, and we believe their intentions are good,” Cook said in a detailed open letter posted last Tuesday on the company’s website.
The phone in question, an iPhone 5c, was used by Syed Rizwan Farook, who alongside with his wife, Tashfeen Malik, opened fire at a holiday party at the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health in California last December. 14 people were killed and 22 were seriously injured at the site. The couple, who pledged their loyalty to the Islamic State terrorist group, died hours later in a shootout with police.
The data that would be encrypted on the iPhone includes photos, contacts and iMessages. To acquire this information would clear up some confusion on why the couple picked the target they did, if they planned on other further attacks and whether they received any information or support from overseas.
The order that was made by the Justice Department, signed last Tuesday by a magistrate Judge Pym from Riverside, California, does not ask Apple to hack and break the phone’s encryption but instead have Apple disable the feature that has data on the phone wiped after 10 incorrect tries at entering the phone’s password.
Through this method, the government can generate the password through the attempt of tens of millions of combinations without the risk or loss of any crucial information and data on the phone.
Apple has said that in no way it is possible for them to unlock its newer iPhones for law enforcement, even if a warrant is obtained, because the company has engineered their phones in such a way that Apple themselves cannot unlock customer’s devices. Only the phone’s user holds the encryption key that would be able to unlock the phone.
However, Judge Pym stated in her order, Apple can write a software that would be able to bypass the password feature. The software would only affect the detained phone federal prosecutors stated in a memo alongside the order.
Cook responded in a statement saying that by creating this said program, it would dangerously weaken iPhone security.
“Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices,” Cook said. “In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks – from restaurants and banks to stores and homes. No reasonable person would find that acceptable.”
FBI Supervisory Special Agent Christopher Pluhar who is also the director of the Orange County Regional computer Forensics Laboratory, says he believes that there may be relevant, critical communications and date located on the phone at the time of the shooting.
Farook’s iPhone ran on Apple’s iOS 9 operating system, which was built with default device encryption. When the user of the device created a password, that phrase or series of letters and number generates a key that is used in combination with a hardware key on a chip stored inside the phone. With these together, the keys encrypt the device’s data.
If the auto wipe feature was removed, the FBI could run a multitude of combinations until the right one is found. The only problem with that, the process would take approximately 5.5 years for a six-digit lower-case password to be discovered, Apple said.
If the FBI were to use a supercomputer, the process would be done thousands of times quicker. But in order to do it, the FBI would still need the hardware key, which is built into the phone. Apple states they do not keep a copy of the key.
In order to recover the key, numerous processes exist, the plastic can be melted off the chip and hit it with bursts of lasers or radio frequencies to recover parts of the key.
The FBI is making the initial order under the “All Writs Act of 1789,” a law that dates back to the colonial era that has been used as a source of authority to issue orders that are not otherwise covered by a statute.
This raises questions throughout legal scholars, saying that with the use of the “All Writs Act” in the California Apple case shows a slippery slope issue.
“Companies should comply with warrants to the extent they are able to do so, but no company should be forced to deliberately weaken its products,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) last Wednesday. “In the long-run, the real losers will be Americans’ online safety and security.”
This case is said to heighten tensions between Silicon Valley and the U.S. government. Apple and Google both had embedded strong default encryption into their phones, devices and products back in 2014, after the leaks from former National Security Agency employee Edward Snowden prompted mass surveillance and privacy break concerns through the whole country.