Why Apple is resisting a court order to help unlock a terrorist’s iPhone

For Apple which has prized itself on security and consumer trust, breaking encryption in one instance opens up a Pandora’s box.

Written by Shruti Dhapola | Updated: April 3, 2016 12:38 pm
The San Bernardino killers, Tashfeen Malik (left), and Syed Rizwan Farook, as they pass through O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. (AP File Photo) The San Bernardino killers, Tashfeen Malik (left), and Syed Rizwan Farook, as they pass through O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. (AP File Photo)

The FBI wants Apple to unlock an iPhone 5c that Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the two terrorists who killed 14 at San Bernardino in December, used — and a California court has ordered the company to comply. Apple has said no — citing wider issues that affect everyone. SHRUTI DHAPOLA explains. (Read full order here)

What has the court ordered?

United States Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym has asked Apple to provide “reasonable technical assistance” to investigators — which means help bypass an auto-erase function that gets activated when the wrong pin or password is entered for a fixed number of times; allow FBI to submit unlimited passcodes via a computer, a programme or whatever protocol they determine; and ensure that the Apple software doesn’t purposely add any additional delay between password attempts to unlock the device. Apple is also required to load a specific iOS recovery file on to the device so that FBI can recover the passcode. This version of iOS will ensure that the auto-erase function doesn’t get enabled. FBI basically wants to ensure that it doesn’t spend an indefinite length of time trying to unlock this iPhone.

Why is Apple refusing to comply?

CEO Tim Cook has written ‘A Message to Our Customers’ saying the government’s demand and the order have “implications far beyond the legal case at hand”. The order, Cook has said, basically tells engineers who’ve worked to ensure that the device is secure and encrypted, to now weaken those same protections. This, according to Cook, allows FBI a backdoor entry into the iPhone, sets a dangerous precedent, and puts consumer data at risk from hackers and cyber criminals.

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But isn’t Apple supposed to hand over data when required by law?

Apple has said that it has already helped the FBI to the extent it could. Its problem is with being asked for a specific version of iOS to unlock the device. FBI wants to use what Tim Cook calls “brute force” to get access, something current encryption doesn’t allow. And it’s this encryption that Apple doesn’t want bypassed.

So what is Apple afraid of? It’s only one iPhone, isn’t it?

According to Cook, breaking encryption means breaking consumer trust, and putting their devices at risk from hackers and criminals. Breaking encryption once opens a Pandora’s box. Tomorrow, other governments could ask for access too, and it might not just be in cases of terrorism.

Smartphones contain enormous amounts of personal data, and giving governments access means Apple would be giving up control over how this data is secured, something that no tech company wants. Be it Apple, Google or Facebook — all have very large user bases, and they would all be similarly concerned.

But why can’t FBI build this software on its own?

The iPhone is designed to run only iOS software created by Apple. For the phone to recognise that the software was made by Apple, the company must sign each piece with an encrypted key to verify it. So, even if the FBI tried to build a new version of iOS, it would not have Apple’s crucial signature.

There is, of course, a lot of data available that does not require Apple’s assistance in unlocking the phone. The FBI could ask Verizon, the cellular carrier by which Farook’s phone was serviced, for example, or the developers who created the apps for the phone. But FBI has probably already pursued those avenues — and realised that some data is simply not accessible without Apple’s intervention.

Also Read: Apple CEO Tim Cook rejects demand for iPhone unlocking, gets Sundar Pichai’s support

Can Apple challenge the order?

Yes. The order says that if Apple finds compliance unreasonably burdensome, it can challenge it. Given contents of Cook’s letter, it’s likely that Apple will appeal.

What does the rest of Silicon Valley have to say about this tussle?

Cook has found support from Google CEO Sundar Pichai, who tweeted saying that companies 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”. This, Pichai said, could be the start of a “troubling precedent”.

WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum also posted in support of Apple’s letter, saying that they must not allow a dangerous precedent to be set.

For tech companies, the order challenges the heart of their business: How they keep their data safe and secure, from governments and rivals. Indeed, Apple’s biggest worry is about setting a precedent for similar requests in the future, from the US and other countries.

— With the New York Times inputs

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First Published on: February 19, 2016 1:12 am
  1. C
    Connie Martinez
    Apr 3, 2016 at 12:18 pm
    Ok, I'm going to sound naive and definitely know I am not knowledgeable about the full aspects of this case, But I'm thinking that Apple could have unlocked this particular phone ONLY, and given the information to FBI without giving away how they did it????? lt;br/gt;That should have been enough.
    1. S
      Feb 21, 2016 at 6:00 am
      These are tough decisions for Apple, made in customer interest. Their formula trained by Mr. Jobs is to listen, appreciate and apply customer preferences first, design first and management interest secondary rather than the reverse, this is a fundamental policy in IT systems design and development taught in colleges.
      1. G
        Feb 19, 2016 at 4:51 pm
        BJP is responsible for apple not obeying. Rahul oo and IE journos can s cuck apple.
        1. H
          Feb 21, 2016 at 6:12 am
          Can you not see that your kshatriyas look more like vegetarian-in-food-habits but violent-human-killer and silent-commercial-human-killer vaishyas?
          1. K
            kulaputra kulaputra
            Feb 22, 2016 at 12:59 am
            If you are this biased, then Only God can help you or has he given up ?
            1. K
              kulaputra kulaputra
              Feb 22, 2016 at 12:54 am
              That is a company after my heart. Not bowing down to any Government to ensure that integrity of encryption and security is preserved. This is what I expect from Apple. This order to unlock is as good as saying every lock maker should hand over a copy of key to Government. This means that any criminal gets access to this key and can enter any home. Ridiculous. Keep it up Apple. My family and I (iPhone users) are with you for encryption and security integrity
              1. R
                Rajeev Tatkar
                Feb 19, 2016 at 12:09 am
                All governments that have a problem with Apple's case should ban s of Apple phones in their country. Lets see if Apple can stand up to that.
                1. R
                  renu butala
                  Feb 20, 2016 at 8:05 am
                  mo book
                  1. S
                    Shyamal Ganguly
                    Feb 20, 2016 at 12:33 pm
                    I read in American press that famous John McAfee has offered to break open the data encryption code if FBI asks for it. FBI and Apple had no response. It is a fact that under the U.S. law FBI can break open any closed door real or virtual in the interest f the USA. Apple is not bound to ist FBI. Apple is more concerned about its business among the Muslims, but being a Vaishya, Apple must obey the Kshatriya power and command.
                    1. S
                      Shyamal Ganguly
                      Feb 20, 2016 at 12:35 pm
                      This idea of yours is excellent. Apprehending the crime network of these two Muslim Jihadis is the duty of every government and Apple must comply else punish Apple. Vaishya must obey the command of the Kshatriya.
                      1. V
                        Feb 21, 2016 at 5:23 pm
                        Common techies! The must be some way to help government/s. The business houses should be helping governments in any criminal cases. Now this is terror act! Grow up! At least show respect to the order ped by law authorities. If the information can help breaking criminal network then be it. Or else law enforcement agencies will create laws which may make business difficult in future.
                        1. V
                          vishal vaibhaw
                          Feb 24, 2016 at 1:16 am
                          I can unlock the phone and pull out the information. But i want legal permission to do so. I mean it what i say.........
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