FBI-Apple: The Curious Case of the iPhone in Court

Mathew Sayer In the News

On March 22nd FBI-Apple encryption battle unfolds further. Judge Pym will chair a federal hearing at the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. The case will set a precedence for the future of encryption and privacy.

Timeline

  • December 2nd, 201514 people killed and 22 seriously injured when married couple Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik open fire at a San Bernardino County training event and holiday party
  • December 6th, 2015 – Barack Obama delivers a prime-time Oval Office address defining the shooting as an act of terrorism
  • February 9th, 2016 – The FBI announces it is unable to unlock Farook’s iPhone 5C. The phone is a work phone and legally owned by San Bernardino County
  • February 16th, 2016A court order U.S. District Court decision invoking the All Writs Act of 1789 demands that Apple “assist in enabling the search of a cellular telephone…by providing reasonable technical assistance” and given until the 26th of February to respond
    An online statement from Apple’s CEO Tim Cook explains the companies opposition to the court order
  • March 3rd, 2016 – Michael Ramos, DA for San Bernardino County, submits a court order claiming that the iPhone might contain a ‘potential cyber pathogen‘ (p6).

What the other giants are saying about FBI-Apple

Apple’s peers have been widely supportive of the Cupertino company. Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon and Google all have plans to file court letters stating their support. Unsurprisingly these forward-thinking companies are skeptical of using a centuries-old law to govern new technology.

“We need 21st-century laws that address 21st-century technology issues. And we need these laws to be written by Congress.” Brad Smith – Microsoft Chief Legal Officer (CNN)

In his fourth Reddit, AMA Bill Gates hedged a bit.

“Maybe they could propose an overall plan for striking the balance between government being able to know things in some cases and having safeguards to make sure those powers are confined to appropriate cases. There is no avoiding this debate and they could contribute to how the balance should be struck.” (Reddit)

Not all companies are on Apple’s side. Blackberry’s CEO John Chen said that “our privacy commitment does not extend to criminals” and will, therefore, help the government. That’s an awful lot of faith to put in the state, John. This is the same government that thinks all military-aged males in a strike zone (MAMIAS?) can be classed as militants.

Creating Fear

It isn’t time to reach for the tinfoil just yet. You don’t need aluminium to know that certain parts of the government actually want encryption they can break. Scaring people with scary words is easy when talking about technology; because most people are clueless about how it works. When the District Attorney Michael Ramos filed his amicus curiae about ‘dormant cyber pathogens’ he wasn’t speaking to the court, he was talking to the fear-merchant media. Forensic experts have ridiculed Ramos’ claims.

“It sounds like he’s making up these terms as he goes. We’ve never used these terms in computer science. I think what he’s trying to suggest is that Farook was somehow working with someone to install a program on the iPhone that would infect the local network with some kind of virus or worm or something along those lines. Anything is possible, right? Do they have any evidence whatsoever to show there is any kind of cyber pathogen on the network or any logs or network captures to show that Farook’s phone tried to introduce some unauthorized code into the system?” Jonathon Zdziarski (Ars Technica)

The media-angled onslaught grew stronger when a brief from the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association submitted to the judge overseeing FBI-Apple said the iPhone was the criminal’s “device of choice“.

Hold strong encryption fans, the worst is yet to come.