News / USA

    FBI-Apple Standoff Was Years in the Making

    FILE - These then-new Apple iPhone 5c models were on display in at Tokyo store on Sept. 20, 2013. A 5c is at the center of Apple's battle with the FBI over efforts to break the company's proprietary auto-destruct security system.
    FILE - These then-new Apple iPhone 5c models were on display in at Tokyo store on Sept. 20, 2013. A 5c is at the center of Apple's battle with the FBI over efforts to break the company's proprietary auto-destruct security system.

    If the FBI and the tech industry had been looking for a near-perfect test case to establish the limits — if any — of encryption, it now appears they’ve found what they’re looking for.

    This week, U.S. District Judge Sheri Pym ruled that engineers at Apple must help the FBI gain access to a locked iPhone by creating a custom bit of code that would break Apple’s proprietary auto-destruct security system. In response, Apple CEO Tim Cook called the ruling “chilling” and said his engineers would not comply. The company is expected to appeal the ruling.

    The FBI believes it has the legal upper hand for two reasons. First, the phone was allegedly used by Syed Farook, one of the two shooters who carried out last year’s terror attack in San Bernardino. That makes it at least possible the iPhone could contain contacts, images or other data that might help the ongoing federal investigation of the attack.

    FILE - Apple CEO Tim Cook responds to a question during a news conference at IBM Watson headquarters, in New York, April 30, 2015. Cook says his company will not comply with a judge's ruling calling on Apple to help the FBI gain access to a locked iPhone.
    FILE - Apple CEO Tim Cook responds to a question during a news conference at IBM Watson headquarters, in New York, April 30, 2015. Cook says his company will not comply with a judge's ruling calling on Apple to help the FBI gain access to a locked iPhone.

    And second, Pym’s ruling is limited and specific, addressing only one phone already in the FBI’s possession, which is also owned by San Bernardino County, where officials have granted consent for the phone to be searched.

    On the other side, Apple and a coalition of tech companies and privacy advocates call the ruling unprecedented both for its scope and its potential applications. They say that for the first time, the U.S. government is ordering a corporation to intentionally destroy proprietary security features that will open a massive hole on all its products that hackers will exploit.

    Worse yet, they argue a victory for the FBI will establish precedent for governments around the world who want to spy on their citizens to simply order companies to help, potentially putting millions at risk for punishment, prison or worse.

    Whatever the outcome, this much is clear: The standoff between Apple and the FBI is unlikely to be resolved soon. In the meantime, the debate over encryption and national security in the U.S. may now move from the back burners to the center of national dialogue.

    Big deal — for whom?

    “It’s clear that it’s desirable for the FBI to always try to find out information for investigations,” said Ed Black, CEO of the Computer and Communications Industry Association. “Our industry has a huge history, in many, many ways, of cooperating extensively with legitimate law enforcement undertakings."

    The problem, Black said, is that what the FBI is asking for in this case would create a “model” that could very well weaken the overall privacy and security of the global Internet and the digital world.

    “We understand what they want and why they want it,” Black told VOA. “Law enforcement always wants as much information as it can get. But what they want here has the precedent of being used in many ways in the future that we think would cause overall harm to the security of the Internet.”

    Black credited industry innovation with giving police a “more powerful array of investigative tools” than at any other time in history. However, he said that governments should not always get “100 percent of what they want,” and they definitely should not be ordering a company to write what he called “malware” that would intentionally make its own products less secure.

    Alan Berman agreed that a final ruling in the case, at whatever court level, might set a huge precedent, but for reasons opposite of Black.

    “FBI wins, no big deal,” Berman said. “Apple wins, big deal.”

    Berman is president and CEO of the Disaster Recovery Institute, an organization that assists in disaster recovery, cyber or otherwise. He argued that the court ruling was tightly constructed and focused.

    “It’s highly technical and specifically focused on this one phone, and a one-time modification that doesn’t even touch Apple’s encryption,” he said.

    Berman pointed out that Pym’s order does not force Apple to break its own encryption technologies. The court, he said, is merely requesting Apple’s help in deactivating an iPhone security feature known as “auto-erase”; namely, if someone tries to use the wrong passcode to unlock the phone more than 10 times, all data on the phone are destroyed, and the action is irreversible.

    “They’ve been very big into security; this is very consistent with their approach to security and privacy,” Berman told VOA. “Auto-erase? Invented by Apple. The ability to erase your phone remotely? Apple. I’m actually surprised that anybody thought that Tim Cook would have said anything other than what he did.”

    “The real chilling effect,” Berman said, "is you may set a precedent where law enforcement will never be able to get to these locked devices. A win [for Apple] means no one would ever be able to do this again, and these things could go dark forever."

    'A very dark place'

    FBI Director James Comey has made access to encrypted devices a high priority. Since Apple and Google announced they were making encryption a standard option on their devices, Comey has publicly warned that encryption is creating “millions of unbreakable safes” that threatened “to take us to a very dark place.”

    FILE - FBI Director James Comey speaks during a press conference at New York Police Department headquarters, Dec. 16, 2015. Comey has warned that data encryption is creating “millions of unbreakable safes.”
    FILE - FBI Director James Comey speaks during a press conference at New York Police Department headquarters, Dec. 16, 2015. Comey has warned that data encryption is creating “millions of unbreakable safes.”

    His office has been working with tech companies to craft some sort of emergency access protocol, whereby law enforcement officials conducting a legitimate investigation could ask a court for a subpoena to decrypt the device. Those efforts have largely failed.

    While Apple is not a member of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, many tech giants such as Google are, and increasingly they’re lining up in support behind Apple.

    Shortly after Cook announced that his company would not comply with Pym’s order, Google CEO Sundar Pichai took to Twitter to announce his firm’s support for Cook.

    “We build secure products to keep your information safe and we give law enforcement access to data based on valid legal orders,” he wrote. “But that’s wholly different than requiring companies to enable hacking of customer devices & data. Could be a troubling precedent.”

    FILE - Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Council, says the "very significant downside" of law enforcement requests to to decrypt mobile phones and other devices is that "there's no guarantee of success."
    FILE - Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Council, says the "very significant downside" of law enforcement requests to to decrypt mobile phones and other devices is that "there's no guarantee of success."

    Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Council, is a leading national advocate for digital privacy. He said the court order was unusual in several respects, in part because Pym based her ruling on a 227-year-old measure called the All Writs Act, which is almost never invoked today.

    "It’s not a simple request and it’s not a limited request," Rotenberg said. "It’s not just that one phone that becomes broken, it’s every single Apple 5c iPhone that the government could open, because the patch becomes like a master key for all iPhones."

    False promise of success

    While decrypting devices used by suspected terrorists may sound like a good idea, Rotenberg said it’s probably a false promise of data access.

    "What if you have a secure communications app overlaying on top of the Apple operating system?” he told VOA. “That will also be encrypted. Apple won’t have control over those keys, so the FBI will still be facing a locked door. This is why it’s so very important to understand the very significant downside when the government makes these kinds of requests. There’s no guarantee of success.”

    An even larger downside for both Rotenberg and the CCIA’s Black is the precedent a successful FBI ruling might mean around the world.

    "The precedent of asking a tech company to break a privacy feature on behalf of the government [makes] it very difficult for the U.S. government to argue that any other government shouldn’t do the exact same thing,” Rotenberg said. “The Chinese, the Russians, all of them would love to be able to say to service providers, ‘We have a serious investigation. We need your help. Please break the device.’ "


    Doug Bernard

    dbjohnson+voanews.com

    Doug Bernard covers cyber-issues for VOA, focusing on Internet privacy, security and censorship circumvention. Previously he edited VOA’s “Digital Frontiers” blog, produced the “Daily Download” webcast and hosted “Talk to America”, for which he won the International Presenter of the Year award from the Association for International Broadcasting. He began his career at Michigan Public Radio, and has contributed to "The New York Times," the "Christian Science Monitor," SPIN and NPR, among others. You can follow him @dfrontiers.

    You May Like

    US Leaders Who Served in Vietnam War Look Back and Ahead

    In New York Times opinion piece, Secretary of State John Kerry, Senator John McCain and former Senator Bob Kerrey say as US strengthens relations with Vietnam, it is important to remember lessons learned from war

    Who Are US Allies in Fight Against Islamic State?

    There is little but opportunism keeping coalition together analysts warn — SDFs Arab militias are not united even among themselves, frequently squabble and don’t share Kurds' vision for post-Assad Syria

    Learning Foreign Language Helps US Soldiers Bridge Culture Gap

    Effective interaction with local populations part of everyday curriculum at Monterey, California, Defense Language Institute

    This forum has been closed.
    Comment Sorting
    Comments
         
    by: Derek from: NJ
    February 19, 2016 10:09 AM
    We want companies/individuals to cooperate w/ legitimate law enforcement investigations. But Apple doesn't need to provide the govt with the ability to hack into their phones. If the govt can do it, then anyone else can do it. Secrets don't stay safe w/ the govt & the govt can misuse the technology. The San Bernadino terrorists are dead. The investigation can be closed. There is no evidence of a grand conspiracy involving multiple conspirators. The govt has not shown clear & convincing evidence that it needs to access this phone which was probably wiped anyway. The fault lies w/ the employer. When they give employees company phones, they should make sure the company has the passwords.
    In Response

    by: Doug Bernard
    February 19, 2016 10:26 AM
    Derek - I think the FBI is arguing that the investigation isn't over, and they want to examine the phone specifically for contact tracing, among other things, to determine if anyone else was involved, or knew about, the attacks. That said, there's no guarantee that even if the phone is unlocked and decrypted that such data is there...or actually encrypted in another app other than iOS. Thanks for the note; --Doug

    by: Saibal from: Beijing
    February 19, 2016 9:16 AM
    What comes through, among other things, is the skill of narrating complex issues in simple prose without pausing to explain.

    by: Anonymous
    February 18, 2016 11:11 PM
    No doubt a lot of people will be raving about privacy versus information. Regardless of the government overreach being unconstitutional, at what point do we acknowledge Mr. Spock's line about the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few? Even if it does end up in the Supreme Court, if I were Apple, I'd tell the Feds to take a hike too. They want to open an encrypted phone of a guy they blew to hell anyway. Get your information the old fashioned way with excellent detection like any other decent police organization is paid to do. I think this is a Feddy-Bully test just to see how far they can push an issue and intimidate their way to getting what they want. They must be opposed and stopped. They must not succeed.
    In Response

    by: Doug Bernard
    February 19, 2016 8:02 AM
    Anon - the FBI has been trying to work out some sort of voluntary agreement on encryption with tech companies, with no movement on their part so far. While this case goes through the appeals process, those conversations may continue. A danger, however, is that Congress may now see the need to step in and enact legislation, and there's no telling where that may lead. - Doug Bernard

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Vietnamese-American Youth Optimistic About Obama's Visit to Vietnami
    X
    Elizabeth Lee
    May 22, 2016 6:04 AM
    U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Vietnam later this month comes at a time when Vietnam is seeking stronger ties with the United States. Many Vietnamese Americans, especially the younger generation, are optimistic Obama’s trip will help further reconciliation between the two former foes. Elizabeth Lee has more from the community called "Little Saigon" located south of Los Angeles.
    Video

    Video Vietnamese-American Youth Optimistic About Obama's Visit to Vietnam

    U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Vietnam later this month comes at a time when Vietnam is seeking stronger ties with the United States. Many Vietnamese Americans, especially the younger generation, are optimistic Obama’s trip will help further reconciliation between the two former foes. Elizabeth Lee has more from the community called "Little Saigon" located south of Los Angeles.
    Video

    Video First-generation, Afghan-American Student Sets Sights on Basketball Glory

    Their parents are immigrants to the United States. They are kids who live between two worlds -- their parents' homeland and the U.S. For many of them, they feel most "American" at school. It can be tricky balancing both worlds. In this report, produced by Beth Mendelson, Arash Arabasadi tells us about one Afghan-American student who seems to be coping -- one shot at a time.
    Video

    Video Newest US Citizens, Writing the Next Great Chapter

    While universities across the United States honor their newest graduates this Friday, many immigrants in downtown Manhattan are celebrating, too. One hundred of them, representing 31 countries across four continents, graduated as U.S. citizens, joining the ranks of 680,000 others every year in New York and cities around the country.
    Video

    Video Vietnam Sees Strong Economic Growth Despite Incomplete Reforms

    Vietnam has transformed its communist economy to become one of the world's fastest-growing nations. While the reforms are incomplete, multinational corporations see a profitable future in Vietnam and have made major investments -- as VOA's Jim Randle reports.
    Video

    Video Qatar Denies World Cup Corruption

    The head of Qatar’s organizing committee for the 2022 World Cup insists his country's bid to host the soccer tournament was completely clean, despite the corruption scandals that have rocked the sport’s governing body, FIFA. Hassan Al-Thawadi also said new laws would offer protection to migrants working on World Cup construction projects. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
    Video

    Video Infrastructure Funding Puts Cambodia on Front Line of International Politics

    When leaders of the world’s seven most developed economies meet in Japan next week, demands for infrastructure investment world wide will be high on the agenda. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push for “quality infrastructure investment” throughout Asia has been widely viewed as a counter to the rise of Chinese investment flooding into region.
    Video

    Video Democrats Fear Party Unity a Casualty in Clinton-Sanders Battle

    Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton claimed a narrow victory in Tuesday's Kentucky primary even as rival Bernie Sanders won in Oregon. Tensions between the two campaigns are rising, prompting fears that the party will have a difficult time unifying to face the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump. VOA national correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.
    Video

    Video Portrait of a Transgender Marriage: Husband and Wife Navigate New Roles

    As controversy continues in North Carolina over the use of public bathrooms by transgender individuals, personal struggles with gender identity that were once secret are now coming to light. VOA’s Tina Trinh explored the ramifications for one couple as part of trans.formation, a series of stories on transgender issues.
    Video

    Video Amerikan Hero Flips Stereotype of Middle Eastern Character

    An Iranian American comedian is hoping to connect with American audiences through a film that inverts some of Hollywood's stereotypes about Middle Eastern characters. Sama Dizayee reports.
    Video

    Video Budding Young Inventors Tackle City's Problems with 3-D Printing

    Every city has problems, and local officials and politicians are often frustrated by their inability to solve them. But surprising solutions can come from unexpected places. Students in Baltimore. Maryland, took up the challenge to solve problems they identified in their city, and came up with projects and products to make a difference. VOA's June Soh has more on a digital fabrication competition primarily focused on 3-D design and printing. Carol Pearson narrates.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora