A federal judge yesterday (Feb. 16) ordered Apple to comply with an FBI request regarding the decryption of an iPhone 5c used by Syed Rizwan Farook, who, along with his wife, killed 14 people in the San Bernardino massacre in December.
Apple CEO Tim Cook refused, writing in an open letter on Apple's website that "the U.S. government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create. They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone."
But Cook is being disingenuous. Apple is not being asked to hand over a backdoor or a master key. It's not being asked to decrypt Farook's iPhone. Rather, Apple is being asked to let FBI technicians decrypt the phone themselves. That's very different.
Judge Sheri Pym wrote in her court order that "Apple shall assist in enabling the search of a cellular telephone [specified as Farook's device] .... by providing reasonable technical assistance to assist law enforcement agents in obtaining access to the the data on the subject device."
Specifically, Pym ordered Apple to disable two security features on Farook's iPhone: first, the rate limiter which incrementally slows down the rate at which you can input successive incorrect PINs; and second, the self-destruct trigger which erases the content of the iPhone after 10 incorrect PIN entries.
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Once those features are disabled, the FBI might be able to brute-force Farook's PIN without risk of erasing all the data on it. That "might" depends on what kind of PIN Farook used to lock the phone's screen, because the PIN encrypts and decrypts the phone's contents.
If Farook used a four-digit PIN, then the PIN will be "cracked" in less than an hour. A six-digit PIN will probably take several hours. But if Farook used a long, complex alphanumeric passphrase, it could take months or years. (The phone was Farook's work phone, and belonged to the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health.)
But disabling the rate limiter and the self-destruct trigger is not the same as giving the FBI a backdoor into Apple's encryption protocols. It's not even giving the FBI special tools to crack into the phone -- the FBI already has those tools. Rather, it's just stepping out of the way to let the FBI do its job.
There are a couple of ways in which Apple could disable those features. A technician could install an Apple-signed firmware update from a computer, preferably Farook's own. Or, less likely, Apple could push out an over-the-air update specifically targeting Farook's phone. In either case, the change would apply only to Farook's device, and not anyone else's.
Tim Cook was right when he argued in Apple's statement yesterday that "this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession."
But the FBI isn't about to release this code into the wild, and Apple could design the update so that it works only on Farook's phone.
Apple opposes this request because it sets a dangerous precedent. If Apple complies, other law-enforcement agencies around the world will be able to cite this as proof that Apple will cave to demands to decrypt a phone.
"Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices," Cook argued. "In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks."
From a legal and political standpoint, Apple's argument is completely legitimate. Every law-enforcement and intelligence agency worldwide wants a backdoor into Apple products. And by refusing to comply with the order, Apple is trying to force a higher court to decide the constitutional merits of the case, and possibly take it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
But technically speaking, disabling the anti-brute-force features isn't the same as creating a backdoor. And in any case, disabling those features may not even be possible on newer iPhones.
As security experts Robert Graham, Dan Guido and Jonathan Zdziarski pointed out in separate blog posts, the iPhone 5s and later models store the PIN and handle the encryption using a Secure Enclave, which is impossible to alter with a firmware update without erasing the device's contents. If so, then the FBI is lucky that Farook used an iPhone 5c. (A former Apple employee, John Kelley, argued on Twitter that the Secure Enclave could indeed be altered safely.)
Unlocking Farook's iPhone won't bring back the victims of the San Bernardino massacre. The data on the phone may help prevent further attacks, but will more likely be used to locate possible accomplices and build cases against them.
And the authorities aren't being completely honest, either, when they say such requests are a matter of national security. The case of Farook's iPhone may not be. The NSA would be brought in if a real serious, imminent threat were involved. Judging from recent statements by the NSA's current and former directors, both of whom went against the FBI and supported Apple's encryption efforts, the NSA probably doesn't need Apple's help to break into an iPhone.