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THE HOYOS FILE: Apple should unlock that iPhone

Pat Hoyos, [email protected]

THE HOYOS FILE: Apple should unlock that iPhone

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IF YOU OWN A SMARTPHONE, either an Apple iPhone or an Android phone like, say, a Samsung Galaxy, a story breaking far away in sunny California may have attracted your interest.

Even if it didn’t, what may be decided as a result of it is sure to affect you one way or another in the future.

Two major opinion leaders and many Silicon Valley companies have already taken sides in the matter.

Of course, I am talking about the order by a United States (US) judge, telling Apple to help the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) unlock a mass murder suspect’s iPhone.

Bloomberg’s editorial board has come out strongly in favour of Apple helping the FBI to gain access to the iPhone of one of the alleged killers in the San Bernardino mass shooting.

But the New York Times says it shouldn’t, backing the decision of Apple chief executive officer Tim Cook to fight the order in court.

Here’s the brief: US Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym has ordered Apple to assist the agency in getting access to the iPhone used by the terrorist Syed Rizwan Farook, who, with his wife, carried out that horrendous mass murder in San Bernardino last December, killing 14 people.

Apple has said it will fight the order, calling it an example of government overreach.

Here’s the problem the FBI faces: Farook’s phone has a security feature that automatically clears its data after ten incorrect attempts at entering a password.

The FBI wants Apple to find a way to circumvent that security feature and allow its agents to try as many password combinations as it takes to gain access.

Bloomberg disagrees with Cook, whose response was that the court “asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone”.

It wouldn’t be a backdoor, says Bloomberg, “because it wouldn’t be built into Apple’s products….It would be a technique for opening the phone over which Apple would retain sole control, subject to court order. In fact, the order says the software need never leave the company’s campus”.

Bloomberg says it’s not unusual for a government to ask a company for assistance when one of its products is used in a crime.

Gun manufacturers and sellers are enlisted in murder investigations, telecoms must cooperate with wiretaps, and banks “spending more hours and dollars preventing money laundering than you’d imagine. Everyone has their orders”.

Now, the New York Times takes the opposite view.

It says that Apple had already given the FBI data from the killer’s iPhone that had been backed up to its iCloud service, the last backup being made about a month before the attacks.

It quotes Cook as saying, in his letter which was sent out all over the world to iPhone users (I got mine on Thursday last week) that requiring Apple to create software to bypass that self-erase feature would set a dangerous precedent and could undermine the security of its devices.

The Times does not agree with the Department of Justice that this would be a one-off.

“If Apple is required to help the FBI in this case, courts could require it to use this software in future investigations or order it to create new software to fit new needs. It is also theoretically possible that hackers could steal the software from the company’s servers,” it said (New York Times editorial of Friday, February 19, 2016.

Besides already having access to date stored in iCloud, Google Gmail and other online or “cloud” services in their investigations, says the Times, law enforcement can also get phone records and text messages from the big telecoms, not to mention video from Internet-connect sensors, cameras and other devices.

In the meantime, those back doors could also be used by criminals, it said, if they got hold of them, to do more harm in terms of conducting mass surveillance and stealing national secrets.

In my opinion, Apple “doth protest too much”, at least in this case. With so much information already available through court order, as noted above, from cloud or online storage, the real reason the FBI wants to get into Farook’s phone may be to look for possible links to co-conspirators.

To me that is a specific matter because it might lead to other plots still on the cooker, but which have been put on the back-burner for now.

There is another case in which the still-living phone owner who is being charged in New Jersey for narcotics crimes claims to have forgotten his password, and Apple used that case to start drawing the line on giving help to investigators, saying it was being turned into a law enforcement agency itself.

I don’t buy the argument that one of the most secretive companies that ever existed – and which can keep secret the details of its upcoming products despite every single nerd with a computer trying to find out what it is coming up with next – would not be able to keep its “skeleton key” to the iPhone secret, should it have to create one (if it doesn’t have one already).

I also believe that we as citizens and consumers cannot expect the “government” to solve crimes when private enterprise is selling freely on the market guns and other weapons that can kill lots of people quickly and efficiently, also devices whose data the killers can actually take to the grave.

Yes, it is a slippery slope, and much care has to be taken to avoid law enforcement getting too greedy and too sloppy in its regular “gumshoe” investigations so that it just routinely calls for big companies to hack into phones on its behalf.

But in a case like this one, which shocked the world, especially because the people suspect of the killings lived and worked among Americans for years, breaking up any similar sleeper cells which may be out there is critical to saving lives in the future.

Cracking open that iPhone belonging to Farook could be key to solving many aspects of the terrible crimes he and his wife committed, and stopping similar ones from happening in the future.