Apple vs FBI: Apple now turns attention to how FBI hacked iPhone
This week may have felt like a victory for Apple, with the FBI being forced to find an alternate route into the iPhone of gunman Syed Rizwan Farook. Yet the fact that the US government was able to access the device will now raise a new challenge for the tech company: uncovering exactly how it was able to do so.
According to the LA Times, who quoted a source “unauthorised to discuss the case”, the FBI was provided with a method to incorrectly guess more than ten passwords without permanently locking the phone’s data. In essence, this would have allowed the US agency to run through different password variables using software until it hit the right one.
The New York Times suggested this may have been made possible by a technique that mirrored the phone’s NAND chip, which allowed the FBI to copy the iPhone’s storage so that it could be tried with a new set of passwords.
Apple’s task will be to verify whether this was the method used, and to patch the vulnerability. In a statement released alongside the news that the FBI has broken into the phone without its assistance, Apple said it would “continue to increase the security of [its] products as the threats and attacks on [its] data become more frequent and more sophisticated”.
A new impasse has been reached, therefore, as Apple seeks to uncover the FBI’s methods. From the agency’s perspective, it will likely want to hold on to the secret method in case of a similar situation in the future. Quoted in the New York Times, Stewart A Baker, the Department of Homeland Security’s first assistant secretary for policy, said that the government might not reveal the technique, as that information is “proprietary to the company that helped the FBI”.
Our previous reporting on the story continues below.
For now, the privacy vs security debate has come to an end. The FBI announced on Monday that it has managed to access the San Bernardino gunman’s phone without Apple assistance, and withdrawn a court order that the company was heavily resisting.
“It remains a priority for the government to ensure that law enforcement can obtain crucial digital information to protect national security and public safety, either with co-operation from relevant parties, or through the court system when co-operation fails,” the FBI said in a statement.
Responding to the news, Apple said, “From the beginning, we objected to the FBI’s demand that Apple build a backdoor into the iPhone because we believed it was wrong and would set a dangerous precedent. As a result of the government’s dismissal, neither of these occurred. This case should never have been brought.”
The company added that it would “continue to increase the security of our products as the threats and attacks on our data become more frequent and more sophisticated,” meaning this can has been kicked down the road… for now.
Identity of the third-party helper
Israeli-based company Cellebrite is the third party helping the FBI to unlock the iPhone of gunman Syed Rizwan Farook, according to reports from Reuters and the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, who cite “experts in the field familiar with the case”.
Cellebrite specialises in mobile forensics, and has not yet publicly commented. The company is a subsidiary of Japan’s Sun Corporation, and manufactures data-extraction software used by military and law-enforcement agencies. It also produces software for phone-to-phone data transfer and backup that is used by mobile retailers.
The report comes in the wake of news that a court hearing over the clash between Apple and the FBI has been postponed, following a disclosure from the Justice Department that it may have found another way to unlock the iPhone at the centre of the case.
The FBI previously said an “outside party” had approached the organisation, claiming to be able to unlock the phone. The Justice Department will need to test this method but if it works it will “eliminate the need for the assistance from Apple,” according to the filing.
The Justice Department said it would file a status report on its progress by 5 April.
One big issue facing the FBI is that, even if third-party assistance does work, being legally obliged to reveal the method used to bypass the iPhone’s security means Apple will inevitably patch the vulnerability. Then what? If the FBI needs to unlock another iPhone it will be forced to take Apple to court all over again.
The solution would therefore be a short-term one, and would delay but not circumvent a showdown between Apple and the FBI – a case that has come to represent a clash between the US government and Silicon Valley over privacy and security.
During Apple’s 21 March launch of the iPhone SE, Tim Cook opened the event with a defence of Apple’s position. “We did not expect to be in this position – at odds with our own government – but we believe strongly that we have a responsibility to help you protect your data, and protect your privacy,” Cook said. “We owe it to our customers and we owe it to our country. This is an issue that impacts all of us and we will not shrink from this responsibility.”
Apple vs FBI: The debate as it stands
A US judge has told Apple that it must help the FBI to access data on an iPhone 5c belonging to Syed Rizwan Farook, who last December killed 14 people with his wife Tashfeen Malik.
Apple responded to the order with a letter to its customers, written by Tim Cook, calling the decision a “threat to data security”.
“We have great respect for the professionals at the FBI, and we believe their intentions are good,” Cook says in the letter. “Up to this point, we have done everything that is both within our power and within the law to help them. But now the US 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.”
Three months after the shootings in San Bernardino, FBI agents remain unable to break into the encrypted phone. Agents want Apple to remove the limit on passcode attempts on Farook’s phone – which currently stands at ten before data is automatically erased.
(Above: Syed Rizwan Farook in his California Department of Motor Vehicles licence)
“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,” Cook claims. “The FBI may use different words to describe this tool, but make no mistake: building a version of iOS that bypasses security in this way would undeniably create a backdoor. And while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control.”
“Reasonable technical assistance”
The US Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles made the request that Apple help with the investigation: “Apple has the exclusive technical means which would assist the government in completing its search, but has declined to provide that assistance voluntarily,” prosecutors said.
Sheri Pym of the US District Court in Los Angeles subsequently ruled that Apple must provide “reasonable technical assistance”. In its letter, Apple suggests the order marks an unjustified expansion of the FBI’s authority.
“Rather than asking for legislative action through Congress, the FBI is proposing an unprecedented use of the All Writs Act of 1789 to justify an expansion of its authority,” Cook says in the letter. “The government would have us remove security features and add new capabilities to the operating system, allowing a passcode to be input electronically. This would make it easier to unlock an iPhone by ‘brute force’, trying thousands or millions of combinations with the speed of a modern computer.”
Apple has fought hard in the past against breaking its own encryption. Last year, Tim Cook called the US government’s intention to create backdoors in encryption systems “incredibly dangerous”.
“If you put a key under the mat for the cops, a burglar can find it too,” he said at the time. “Criminals are using every technology tool at their disposal to hack into people’s accounts. If they know there’s a key hidden somewhere, they won’t stop until they find it.”
Federighi’s Washington Post appeal
On 7 March, in the face of polling evidence that public opinion seems to back the government over Apple in the ongoing encryption battle, the company’s popular vice president of software engineering, Craig Federighi has put the case for security in an extended op-ed piece in the Washington Post.
The op-ed puts forward the company’s case in strong terms, arguing that the “encryption technology built into today’s iPhone represents the best data security available to consumers”.
“It’s so disappointing that the FBI, Justice Department and others in law enforcement are pressing us to turn back the clock to a less-secure time and less-secure technologies,” Federighi writes. “They have suggested that the safeguards of iOS 7 were good enough and that we should simply go back to the security standards of 2013. But the security of iOS 7, while cutting-edge at the time, has since been breached by hackers.”
Federighi closes by repeating the core argument: that a security backdoor by its very nature can’t only apply to criminals, and wouldn’t only be used by good guys. “We cannot afford to fall behind those who would exploit technology in order to cause chaos. To slow our pace, or reverse our progress, puts everyone at risk.”
Apple’s position received some legal backing, just hours before Apple and the FBI were due to lock horns in congress over the San Bernardino gunman’s iPhone, with a federal judge in New York ruled that Apple shouldn’t be forced to break into the iPhone of a drug dealer.
This separate case concerns the iPhone of Jun Feng, an accused crystal-meth dealer. Feng has pleaded guilty to the accusation, but his case is ongoing. As with the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone, the FBI tried to use the All Writs Act of 1789 to force Apple to unlock the device.
“The implications of the government’s position are so far-reaching – both in terms of what it would allow today and what it implies about Congressional intent in 1789 – as to produce impermissibly absurd results,” said judge James Orenstein.
While the Feng case is independent of the San Bernardino case, the ruling will be read as a prelude to the upcoming clash between Apple and the FBI, the outcome of which has the potential to reconfigure the relationship between private tech companies and government.
You can read Orenstein’s order in full via The New York Times here. As noted by the director of copyright activism at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), Parker Higgins, one of the order’s footnotes hints at how what the government is asking for could bring surveillance to the Internet of Things.
Apple is making it harder to hack iPhones, report claims
A New York Times report claims Apple engineers are working on new measures to strengthen iOS security, allegedly with the intention of obstructing future FBI attempts to break into locked iPhones.
According to anonymous sources close to the company, the upgrade in security will target the iPhone’s built-in troubleshooting system, which allows the company to update system software without the user having to enter a passcode. This is what the FBI wants to exploit in the case of the San Bernardino gunman, with the government attempting to force Apple to install new software that removes several layers of security around the system.
If reports that Apple is looking to fix this vulnerability are true, it marks a significant challenge against the future actions of law-enforcement agencies. Even if the FBI wins the current fight against Apple, the government would need to find other ways to get into iPhones – backdoors that would presumably be, in turn, patched by Apple.
“We are in for an arms race unless and until Congress decides to clarify who has what obligations in situations like this,” said Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, to The New York Times.
Legislative action through Congress is indeed what Tim Cook hinted at in his letter to customers, which took aim at the FBI’s use of the All Writs Act of 1789 to justify its authority over the San Bernardino gunman’s iPhone.
Elsewhere, Tim Cook spoke to ABC about his stance against the FBI. The reporter asks Cook whether he was concerned that Apple’s position would hamper investigations that could prevent a future attack, and he replies: “Some things are hard and some things are right. And some things are both. This is one of those things.”
Bill Gates “disappointed” by recent reports
In the week following the publication of Tim Cook’s open letter to customers, pretty much all of Silicon Valley has chimed in on the debate surrounding the iPhone of San Bernardino gunman Syed Rizwan Farook. While Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sundar Pichai came out in support of Apple, Microsoft’s Bill Gates made headlines with his apparent support of the FBI.
Now, Gates has said that he is “disappointed” with reports that he decided to back the FBI instead of Apple. In an interview with Bloomberg Go, the Microsoft co-founder called for a more balanced look at the arguments around encryption and government access.
“The extreme view that government always gets everything, nobody supports that. Having the government be blind, people don’t support that,” Gates said.
He called government intervention to stop terrorism, hingeing on the right safeguards, to be “valuable”, but acknowledged that striking a balance is a difficult task. “You don’t just want to take the minute after a terrorist event and swing that direction, nor do you want to completely swing away from government access when you have some abuse being revealed,” he said.
In the previous interview with the Financial Times (£), the Microsoft co-founder claimed that tech companies have a duty to comply with the government in specific high profile cases.
“This is a specific case where the government is asking for access to information. They are not asking for some general thing, they are asking for a particular case,” Gates said at the time. “It is no different than [the idea of] should anybody ever have been able to tell the phone company to get information, should anybody be able to get at bank records. Let’s say the bank had tied a ribbon round the disk drive and said ‘don’t make me cut this ribbon because you’ll make me cut it many times’.”
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has claimed to be sympathetic to Apple, stating any government issued order would provide a “chilling precedent”.
Speaking at Mobile World Congress, the Facebook founder said: “I don’t think that requiring backdoors to encryption is either going to be an effective thing to increase security or is really the right thing to do,” he said. “We are pretty sympathetic to Tim [Cook] and Apple.”
Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Edward Snowden have also announced their support for Tim Cook’s open letter against the FBI on Twitter.
It’s perhaps not particularly unsurprising that Edward Snowden – the CIA whistleblower who exposed the NSA surveillance in 2013 – would side with Apple over the FBI in the standoff over bypassing security of the San Bernardino gunman’s phone.
After this initial tweet, Snowden criticised Google’s initial silence on the subject:
Google’s CEO didn’t stay silent for long, with a series of five tweets backing Tim Cook’s stance:
That’s almost certainly the kind of “open discussion” the FBI was hoping to avoid when it approached Apple for assistance in the case in the first place. Nonetheless, Cook’s stance has been backed by the Information Technology Industry Council, which represents the likes of Dell, Facebook, HP, IBM and Microsoft. In a statement, they wrote: “Our fight against terrorism is actually strengthened by the security tools and technologies created by the technology sector, so we must tread carefully given our shared goals of improving security, instead of creating insecurity.”