Thursday, February 18, 2016

Inside the FBI's encryption battle with Apple

Inside the FBI's encryption battle with Apple | Technology | The Guardian - Danny Yadron, Spencer Ackerman and Sam Thielman:

February 18, 2016 -"Two weeks ago, the FBI called Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, California, with a jarring message: the agency wanted Apple to help them hack an iPhone. Apple refused.... 16 February ... a federal magistrate ordered Apple to help the FBI unlock a single iPhone – the phone belonging to one of the killers in the December mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. Apple again refused.

"But this carefully planned legal battle has been months in the making, ... as the government and Apple try to settle whether national security can dictate how Silicon Valley writes computer code....

"On 2 December a husband and wife opened fire on a local government office building in southern California.... One of the suspects, Syed Farook, had worked for the county, which meant the government owned his iPhone 5C. With a search warrant, Apple provided the FBI data from weekly backups Farook made with Apple’s iCloud service. But those backups stopped on 19 October, according to a federal search warrant request.

"FBI investigators believed there was more data about Farook’s motives in the phone but couldn’t get to it without unlocking the device. The phone’s contents were encrypted and Apple didn’t have the four-digit passcode. Modern iPhones also have an optional feature that will erase all data on the phone with 10 incorrect passcode entries. FBI agents weren’t willing to take the risk....

"In the 16 February court order, Apple was told to build software that, when combined with the unique identification number, would allow the FBI to guess Farook’s password as many times as it wanted. The court also ordered Apple to disable a feature that added a delay after multiple incorrect passcode entries. And since a four-digit passcode has only about 10,000 possible combinations, a powerful computer could plow through guesses fairly quickly, a technology executive said.

 "US officials on Wednesday stressed that their request for Apple is only limited to Farook’s phone. 'The judge’s order and our request in this case do not require Apple to redesign its products, to disable encryption or to open content on the phone,' the Justice Department said in a statement on 17 February.

"But Apple said that it would be impossible to limit the technology to this case. Once Apple built such an investigative tool, any iPhone’s security system – even the most modern ones – could be weakened by it, an Apple executive said.... Additionally, Apple’s lawyers are concerned that if a judge validates the FBI’s use of the All Writs Act in this case, it will give the government sweeping authority to dictate how Silicon Valley builds products in the future....

"To Justice Department officials, San Bernardino is a long-awaited test case. In October 2014, the FBI’s James Comey first told a Washington audience that encryption on mobile devices effectively left law enforcement 'dark' to emerging threats. Ever since, officials believed it was only a matter of time until they came upon a case like the San Bernardino shootings: a device from a terrorist whose lock screen they couldn’t bypass by guesswork to get at the data held on the phone, and not in Apple’s iCloud....

"Senior law enforcement officials were briefed on the decision to go after Apple in such a high-profile way, sources said. The FBI also appears to have been preparing its press strategy for the search warrant for weeks."

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