Why Apple won’t build an iPhone backdoor

Why Apple won’t build an iPhone backdoor - Lovefone, London

In a decision that has gained the support of a whole host of industry leaders, Apple has decided to fight a lawful court order ruling in support of the FBI’s demand that Apple create a backdoor in the iPhone, removing current best practices in smartphone security. Following a tragic shooting by a married couple in San Bernardino, California, the locked iPhone of one of the attackers has caused a political firestorm among U.S. law enforcement, privacy advocates, and smartphone owners everywhere. While older iOS versions are easily “crackable,” Apple has lauded the fact that iOS is now so secure, without rewriting their security software, even Apple employees cannot get access to data inside the phone while the phone is still locked. Interestingly, the cloud is a different issue—had law officials not immediately tried to reset the account’s cloud password, Apple has claimed that they could have provided the phone’s backups as they synced, preventing the need for a worrisome “backdoor” in the first place.

After more than two months of attempts, the FBI has still not been able to unlock the iPhone through conventional methods, even with the aid of iPhone engineers. They cannot attempt a “brute force” method of hacking through multiple-guess for fear that after too many false guesses the data will be wiped, a precaution that would have been easy for the phone’s owner to install. Tim Cook explained their decision on Apple’s website in a post titled A Message to Our Customers. In it, he lays out the need for encryption, and the dangerous precedent their compliance would set in an internationally digital world where data security is more important than ever.

Tim Cook also goes on at length to emphasize that Apple is only rejecting complying with a request to create such vulnerable software—they are not rejecting assistance with the federal government in turning over digital and cloud available to them. “When the FBI has requested data that’s in our possession, we have provided it,” writes Cook. However, Cook reminds readers, “the FBI wants us to make a new version of the iPhone operating system, circumventing several important security features, and install it on an iPhone recovered during the investigation. In the wrong hands, this software - which does not exist today - would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession.”

ArsTechnica has published the court order online, highlighting the section of the order which quite literally demands Apple build what is essentially a master-key function for unlocking iPhones.

While much has been made of the social media support from Twitter, Facebook, Steve Wozniak, and Mark Cuban, Google, which owns the other most substantive chunk of the smartphone market share, has received some of the strongest praise for their “shared support.” The word support may be a bit too strong, however, considering Google’s CEO is careful never to say it.

A recent Slate blog pointed out that headlines regarding Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai go way too far in praising his very tepid five-part twitter “endorsement” of what he refers to as an “important post” made by Tim Cook. Below are Pichai’s five tweets cobbled together more readably.

Important post by @tim_cook. Forcing companies to enable hacking could compromise users’ privacy[.] We know that law enforcement and intelligence agencies face significant challenges in protecting the public against crime and terrorism[.] We build secure products to keep your information safe and we give law enforcement access to data based on valid legal orders[.] But that’s wholly different than requiring companies to enable hacking of customer devices & data. Could be a troubling precedent[.] Looking forward to a thoughtful and open discussion on this important issue[.] — Google CEO Sundar Pichai

Much less qualified in support, Slate’s technology writer Will Oremus warned on a recent Slate podcast that Apple is “basically telling the government that you don’t understand the Pandora’s box that you’re opening here.”

Although most of the US media has kept the focus of this story centered around the immediate California FBI case, preventing backdoor access on their phones is actually a benefit to national security, as US Senator Ron Wyden has asserted. Speaking against the court order to compel Apple to rewrite their OS to be more vulnerable, essentially, Wyden told The Guardian, “If upheld, this decision could force US technology companies to actually build hacking tools for government against their will, while weakening cybersecurity for millions of Americans in the process.”

It may be worth noting that US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has demanded a boycott of Apple from his supporters in light of Apple’s recent decision. Perhaps it wasn’t, but this potential precedent of law enforcement asking companies to make their products more vulnerable should be troubling to everyone, regardless of geographical location or political persuasion.

Author: Andrew Hendricks

February 23, 2016