Apple boss Tim Cook was right to stand up to the FBI

The Feds want the tools to break into an iPhone but their fight with Apple isn’t about getting information on one terrorist — it’s about setting a legal precedent, writes Matthew Gault
Apple boss Tim Cook was right to stand up to the FBI

The FBI wants Apple to give it the tools to break into the iPhone of the San Bernardino terrorist Syed Farook.

In a brave display on the company home page, Apple boss Tim Cook refused. He was right to say no.

If the Feds really wanted to, they have the skills necessary to break into that phone. This fight isn’t about gathering information on a terrorist. It’s about setting a legal precedent.

That the FBI chose to push this issue with the San Bernardino case is telling. Few people, they are betting, care about Farook’s privacy. They must believe the public — and the courts — will support them here.

Cook said that Apple has helped the FBI during every step of its investigation. It has turned over all iPhone data that Farook backed up to the cloud. But the Feds want to access his phone and make sure they didn’t miss anything. To do this, they want Apple to build a backdoor into its own operating system.

Apple’s iPhone, particularly the newer models, has sophisticated encryption technology, triggered by a PIN. Two specific security features make these smartphones particularly nasty to break into.

An iPhone 6

An iPhone 6

Cryptographic brute-force has long been one method of cracking any password. The hacker runs a program that spams every possible password combination at the encrypted device until it opens.

Apple’s phones use either a four- or six-digit PIN. The four-digit PIN only allows for 9,999 different password combinations. The cracking program could run through those combinations in seconds.

The six-digit PIN allows for a million combinations, and is only available on iPhones running the iOS 9 operating system and above. Farook’s phone runs iOS 9. Still, a computer could run through all the possible combinations in less than a minute and break into the device — if it weren’t an iPhone.

Apple’s smartphones require users to enter passwords manually. That takes time. Worse for the would-be hacker is that the phone punishes you for failure. As any iPhone user who’s struggled to enter their PIN one-handed while, for example, walking along and chatting with a friend, knows, if you fail to enter your password too many times, the phone locks you out for a minute.

The phone is programmed so that the lock-out time increases after multiple failures. Six failed attempts pushes the lock-out time to five minutes. After the ninth failed attempt, users have to wait an hour before they can try again.

After the 10th failed attempt, the phone erases all its data, meaning the cryptographic brute-force method just doesn’t work on iPhones, if you don’t manage to get lucky in the early going.

Data encryption has come a long way in the past five years. One reason is tech giants such as Apple and Google now issue over-the-air updates to patch security issues in real time. When a tech company finds a flaw in its software, it pushes out an update as soon as possible to plug the hole.

The FBI is now asking Apple to create a special operating system that can be sent to Farook’s phone either locally or by over-the-air delivery, and then used to bypass Apple’s time delay and system wipe. This would allow federal agents to guess at the password as many times as they want.

What the Feds have requested is possible with Farook’s older model iPhone 5C. On these phones, the operating system runs the security features and Apple could manipulate it through an update.

The FBI says it is asking for this new tool just to breach the phone of one terrorist. But both Apple and many security experts recognise that the specialised operating system could be used as a backdoor into any older model iPhone on the planet.

This backdoor would not work on newer iPhones, however. There, security features live on a separate computer within the phone, called the secure enclave. And the secure enclave is just that — secure. Manipulating the phone’s operating system will not help would-be crackers break in.

The use of a secure enclave is part of an advanced, smart design trend in encryption. It makes products so secure that even the manufacturer can’t bust into them. Yet some experts speculated that Apple may have left the iPhone’s enclave open for updates — and federal manipulation.

US authorities, however, have other methods of extracting data from phones that don’t require passwords. The CIA, the National Security Agency, and the FBI have been working on invasive and non-invasive methods of data extraction for more than a decade.

Many security experts believe the intelligence agencies have devised unique solutions to problems just like the San Bernardino phone.

It’s possible, of course, for authorities to physically open the phone, pull out the computer chips, and bombard them with lasers or radio frequencies to get at the information they need. But experts aren’t sure how much — if any — data would be lost in the process.

But this case isn’t about getting information off a shooter’s phone. It’s about setting a legal precedent.

Cook and Apple are in a tricky position, one where authorities think that the public will read the tech giant’s push-back as an endorsement of terrorism. Apple is betting the public and the courts are smarter than that.

Technical assistance

Why does the US government need Apple’s help?

The US government wants Apple to provide technical assistance to help it break into Farook’s phone. Apple’s mobile operating system encrypts virtually all of its data so that forensics experts cannot access email, text messages, photos or other information unless they enter a password. The phone requires two digital ‘keys’ to unscramble the data: A passcode and a unique 256-bit AES key that is coded into the hardware during manufacture. The hardware key cannot be removed from the device. Apple’s mobile iOS system offers an auto-erase function that will wipe the device after 10 failed attempts to unlock it. The government says it is not sure if Farook enabled that function but has not attempted to unlock it as it does not want to risk losing the data.

What exactly does the US government want Apple to do?

Authorities have asked Apple to create a new version of iOS that disables the auto-erase function. It also requested the new software circumvent a feature that causes delays of up to one hour when nine wrong passwords are entered — making it possible to break into the phone using the ‘brute force’ method of trying millions of different passwords. The US government says it is possible for Apple to create software that will only work on Farook’s device.

What are Apple’s objections?

Apple says such a tool would essentially create a “back door” that could be used by the FBI or others to break into any iPhone. Apple CEO Tim Cook, in a letter to customers, cited the possibility of the specially-created software falling into the “wrong hands”. He said the move would establish a dangerous precedent.

Is Apple right?

It is not clear why Apple would worry about the software being stolen or misused, since the work would take place in Apple’s labs and would presumably be no more subject to theft than any other Apple software.

The same technique would not work on devices launched after the 5C because they are equipped with a chip known as Secure Enclave, which helps encrypt data using both the password and a unique user ID that is provisioned during manufacturing and not known to Apple. The bigger concern is the precedent. If Apple complied, it would mark the first time a software firm created a tool to break into its products.

Are there similar issues with Android devices?

Smartphones powered by Google’s Android operating system offer a variety of encryption options. Forensic technicians can bypass passcodes on some devices, according to a report by Manhattan’s district attorney. Google can remotely reset the passcodes, when served with a search warrant and an order instructing them to assist law enforcement to extract data.

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