Apple’s encryption battle with the FBI given new deadline

19 Feb 2016

Apple has been given a few extra days to answer a court order requiring it to unlock an iPhone for the FBI, but we pretty much know what the response will be.

Apple has until Friday 26 February to officially respond to a US court order that says it must aid the FBI by helping it to access a dead man’s iPhone, according to Bloomberg. The Cupertino company, though, has already gone public with its disdain for the charge, and is quite clearly refusing to play ball.

Apple will need to argue why the FBI’s three-factor (ironic, no?) request to create a special version of iOS to help it hack the iPhone is burdensome and taxes the limits of the 200-year-old All Writs Act.

What is going on?

Some background, if you’d like. The case revolves around the San Bernardino mass shooting from December, where the main gunman (Syed Farook) was shot dead by police.

When they recovered his phone, though, they couldn’t get into it because of Apple’s fairly strong security protocols. For those Androiders out there who don’t know, an Apple software update 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.

What does the FBI want?

The FBI wants the ability to make unlimited attempts to solve Farook’s four-digit pin, it wants to be able to guess passwords without delay and, most worryingly, it wants to be able to make password attempts over a network, rather than manually.

The latter would require a tailored OS, a court ordered backdoor.

“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.”

Official responses will be next week but, in the mean time, yet more companies have supported Apple’s stance. Yesterday, WhatsApp and Google weighed in on the issue, supporting Cook’s stance. Google CEO Sundar Pichai went as far as giving his position in a series of tweets. Notably, this wasn’t done over Google Plus, even Pichai knows where the most exposure is.



Now Facebook and Twitter are backing Apple, with the last three years (basically since Edward Snowden’s revelations) turning into a bizarre battle between US authorities and US tech giants, with both sides claiming to be representing the security of users.

In the background, though, you can’t help but feel this is all smoke and mirrors and the contents of the dead gunman’s phone are sitting in a file, on a computer at the NSA.

Oh, and the NSA isn’t sitting idly by and missing this opportunity, either, as it riles up the court of public opinion, arguing that encryption was one of the reasons the Paris attacks last November weren’t stopped.

More on that bizarre angle here.

Locked iPhone image via Wachiwitt/Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic