Apple opposes court order to unlock dead gunman’s iPhone

17 Feb 2016

A US court has ordered Apple to help FBI agents by unlocking the encrypted iPhone 5 that a gunman owned, but Apple says it won’t do it.

The security in the iPhone 5C used by Syed Farook, one of the shooters in the San Bernardino attack, has become the focal point of Apple’s latest battle to maintain encrypted protection for its customers.

That’s because a US court has ordered the tech giant to aid authorities and unlock the device, something which Apple has immediately said it will contest.

Encryption bigger than one case

“The US government has demanded that Apple take an unprecedented step which threatens the security of our customers,” said Apple CEO Tim Cook in a statement after the ruling.

“We oppose this order, which has implications far beyond the legal case at hand. This moment calls for public discussion, and we want our customers and people around the country to understand what is at stake.”

Farook was killed by police, along with his wife, after they attacked and killed more than a dozen people at a holiday gathering in December. His phone, though, which the FBI thinks has key information that they could use, is strongly protected by Apple’s encryption software.

Apple software dating back to 2014 means texts and images on phones are automatically encrypted. Nobody has access to them, bar the owner. If an iPhone that uses this software (90pc do) is locked then you only have 10 attempts to unlock it.

Should you get the code wrong 10 times, the iPhone has all its data wiped. Not even Apple has access to this information, something which has riled US surveillance authorities quite a lot.

Reasonable technical assistance = backdoor

While not asking it to break the encryption, the court has told Apple to offer “reasonable technical assistance”.

This, according to reports, should be two things. First, the FBI wants the ability to make unlimited attempts to solve Farook’s four-digit pin. Second, it wants a quicker way to make these attempts, rather than manually trying 0001, 0002, 0003 etc.

“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,” warned Cook.

“And while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control.

“While we believe the FBI’s intentions are good, it would be wrong for the government to force us to build a backdoor into our products. And, ultimately, we fear that this demand would undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect.”

This is essentially an entire microstudy of encryption: the US government vs Apple.

Apple CEO Tim Cook, via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic