The implications of the Apple letter

For those who haven’t noticed, there has been a bit of a blow-up regarding a dispute between the FBI and Apple Computers.

The FBI is trying to break into the iPhone of a suspected terrorist, but they can’t brute force the password because the software on that particular version of iPhone only allows 10 wrong tries before the phone becomes worthless with a delay between tries. They want to compel Apple to write a new updated version of the IOS to install on that phone that would essentially allow the FBI to make unlimited tries at speed (i.e., by hooking up another computer) and eventually brute force the password in order to get in. A judge has agreed, and Apple is resisting the order.

Here is the letter from Tim Cook of Apple explaining their position. As he points out, the issue is that once Apple does this, what’s to prevent the exploit from being compromised and used in nefarious ways?

Additionally, what would prevent law enforcement from seeing this as a new tool to use over and over again?

We know that would happen.

Remember the Patriot Act? One of the provisions was normalizing the “sneak and peek” provision to protect us from terrorists (this allows them to break into your home surreptitiously and not inform you even after the fact, so you can’t challenge the warrant because you don’t know it happened – they can also take things by pretending it’s a burglary). Again, we were told this was critical to protect us from terrorists. So what happened? According to the most recent figures in 2013, that year there were 11,129 “sneak and peek” warrant requests, and only 51 of those were for terrorism-related investigations.

Can you guess what the majority of requests were for? Of course — drug investigations. Even misdemeanors.

Regardless of how evil the person is that the FBI is investigating, in a free society we cannot use that as justification for giving unlimited power to investigating entities.

Now, of course, as with any technology issue, there are a lot of complicating factors to this case, but the overall facts are pretty clear. The FBI wants to compel a software company to not just give access to information that they already have, but to help them break the security of their software, with the “promise” that they’ll only do it once. And I don’t accept that.

I’ve been interested to see where the Presidential candidates come down on this issue. A number of different media sources have been tracking candidate responses. Here’s one. Here’s another.

Trump immediately sided 100% with the FBI. Cruz, Rubio, and Kasich have basically said that they understood the concerns but still sided with the FBI. Neither Clinton or Sanders took a firm position either way.

“Obviously Apple and the other tech companies are concerned about this,” Ms. Clinton said. “But as smart as we are, there’s got to be some way on a very specific basis we could try to help get information around crimes and terrorism.

Clinton’s opponent also did not choose between Apple and the FBI. “I’m on both,” Mr. Sanders said, when asked which side he favored. “But count me in as somebody who is a very strong civil libertarian, who believes that we can fight terrorism without undermining our constitutional rights and our privacy rights.”

Libertarian Presidential Candidate Gary Johnson: “#Apple is RIGHT. Handing the govt a potential passkey to millions of phones would be lunacy.”

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25 Responses to The implications of the Apple letter

  1. O.B.Server says:

    Trust the US Government?

    Sure, no problem. If the US Gov’t gives their word, then that’s the gospel truth. Ask native Americans how well the USA keeps its promises? That’s right: good as gold!

    1913 “Income taxes? Tut-tut! Government has assured everyone the income tax is only a temporary measure.”

    1932 “The government promised our Army men those bonuses for fighting in the war – to make the world safe for democracy, you see. So of course the US Government will pay those men what it promised them. No, no: the US Government would never fire on its own people, especially if they were unarmed. No, no, no: they would never burn down those poor people’s shanty town. The US Government is here to help, not hurt.”

    1960s “Vietnam? We need to make sacrifices because the next domino will fall. No, the US Gov’t would never bomb Laos. Of course they’re not holding back the US military nor are they telegraphing their moves to the Viet Cong.”

    1970s “Pol pot is our ally! No, really.”

    1980s “We must protect our nation – so let’s invade Grenada, and Panama! Because … drugs, ok? Drugs! Len Bias dies from cocaine, so arrest, jail, and enslave people for pot, all the more.”

    1990s “Terrorists Vicky Weaver, and the terrorist Branch Davidian kids needed to be killed because, crazed Koresh and Randy Weaver had guns. SCARY GUNS! Besides, Koresh had long hair, meaning: a marijuana smoker. Everyone knows that. Therefore the US Gov’t is pure and good, like unto angels, Q.E.D.”

    2000s “It will be a quick cake-walk in Iraq to get them terrorists. That will not create exponentially more of them, for goodness sake. Only conspiracy theorists (mentally ill nutcases) would ever mention schizophrenic topics like wiretapping, the NSA, spying, eavesdropping, Echelon, technical electronic surveillance, and the like. We all know that because our favorite PC mainstream news personality mocks people who mention those topics as nut jobs.”

    2010s “Snowden? How dare he! No, those nut jobs were certainly not right all along about NSA, eavesdropping. They are traitors for mentioning it, or asking about it! No, no, not the content – only the METADATA! Er, yes, but we demand all encryption keys all the time – so we can decrypt the content.”

    . . . So yeah: If the US Gov’t gives their word, then that’s the gospel truth. The US Government never lies at all about marijuana or drug policy – certainly nothing substantive. So we can be sure the US Government will tell us the truth about this, also.

  2. Freddy Kaludis says:

    Surely there is some way to open the phone in the San Bernardino case without a permanent backdoor for all iphones.
    Maybe open only this phone and not create a permanent security vulnerability?
    Since the U.S. government views the fourth amendment as just a speed bump won’t China or Russia come calling wanting this backdoor if they don’t come up with it by corporate sabotage?
    Apple has backdoored the iphone 70 times before and doesn’t dispute this number. The last time was in New York in a case against a meth dealer who was using version 7 of the phone operating system, the San Bernardino phone has version 9 of the OS.
    With a desktop or laptop machine you can get around a password locked machine with a bootable live disc but I realize this method doesn’t apply to phones.

    • Pete says:

      Of course there is a way to comply without creating a permanent back door for all iPhones. Apple said so and my post said so. That’s not the point, and has nothing to do with this post.

      • Tony Aroma says:

        I don’t believe that’s entirely correct. The FBI’s asking Apple to modify iOS to enable them to bypass the phone’s security. Once that means of bypassing security is created, there’s nothing to stop it from being used again. This is NOT a one-time thing. The government wants the ability to open any phone, but they’re promising they’re only going to use it this one time. It’s like if a lock company gave the police a master key that would open every front door in every home so they could get into just one house.

        Apple complying with this request is NOT like some previous cases. Prior to iOS 8, there was a way for Apple to access data on an iPhone, and they did comply with previous requests from the government. But this is different. This is the first case to come up since Apple beefed up security with iOS 8.

        • Pete says:

          Actually, we’re both essentially correct. It’s a matter of technical fine lines. They are not being asked to create a permanent backdoor in all phones, but rather to create a tool to help break in to this phone — the danger being that if they agreed, it breaks down that legal barrier and they could be asked to do it for many others (as you said, and as I said in my post). I realize that this may seem like an unimportant distinction, but I feel that it’s important to be as clear as possible with the facts when discussing this case.

  3. Freeman says:

    (this allows them to break into your home surreptitiously and not inform you even after the fact, so you can’t challenge the warrant because you don’t know it happened – they can also take things by pretending it’s a burglary)

    Not really much of a pretense, is it? Nope, just more klepto-justice. I like the way Pete said it: “I don’t accept that”. It saddens me that so many do.

    Apple is 100% in the right. Develop this, any and all security measures become essentially worthless. Funny that the candidates who are most inclined to tell us that government is the problem while campaigning to run it are the same who immediately jump to its defense when government threatens to screw something up royally and permanently, but I’m not laughing.

  4. Servetus says:

    The US government is corrupt, and the country is economically unstable. People know they’ve been deceived. Fearing a cultural and economic backlash, the feds are consolidating their power through repression and elimination of personal privacy, an insidious process comprising hundreds of petty tyrannies eroding freedom in tiny, incremental steps.

    The parallels with the immediate aftermath of the 1917 Russian revolution are striking. Incompetent Bolsheviks betrayed the workers worse than the Czars who preceded them. Personal property was confiscated. Contrary to basic communism, labor unions were shut down. Any attempt at individual independence from the system, or self-sustainability, was thwarted. Dissidents were persecuted or killed. Red Army leader Leon Trotsky created concentration camps for such purposes. His military operations laid siege to the peaceful, socialist city of Kronstadt, and he seized the Ukraine and its fertile farmlands for the Soviet sphere.

    The American worker faces a future of limited numbers of low paying jobs minus benefits. Only 15-percent of US workers retain pension plans. Labor unions, both public and private, are constantly under attack, and in decline. Plutocracy is on the rise. Legitimized theft in the form of forfeiture takes property away from innocent citizens. The vague nature of the drug laws circumvent the Bill of Rights, targeting anyone and everyone under any number of vague situations, or for culture, ethnicity or race. A Malthusian contempt exists for the poor, such that they’re forced to take drug tests if they’re on public welfare. Cops on testosterone binges shoot people’s dogs. Anyone looking at these developments would guess a revolution is brewing. The federal government has excellent reasons to be very scared, and to prepare.

    • DdC says:

      SCAPEGOATING – Blaming social problems on a cultural, racial, or behaviorial group. PREJUDICE – Selling the public on the idea that all members of the targeted group are ‘bad’ people. LIES – ‘Facts’, which cannot be verified, and pseudo scientific studies are used as propaganda against the targeted group. History is rewritten. NO PUBLIC DEBATE – “These people have no right to have their viewpoiunt aired.” and ” Anyone who disagrees or questions us must be one of them!” DEHUMANIZATION – Characterizing all members of a targeted group as subhuman and typically capable of monstrous deeds and/or crimes. PROTECT OUR CHILDREN – “They corrupt, seduce and or destroy our children.” CIVIL LIBERTIES SACRIFICED – “We must give up some of our freedoms, liberties, and rights in order to combat this menace to society.” LEGAL DESCRIMINATION – Laws criminalize members of targeted group and they may be denied jobs, the right to own property and/or be restricted as to where they may live or go. INFORMERS – Citizens are urged to ‘turn in’ friends, neighbors, co-workers and family members. SECRET POLICE – Non-uniformed police squads set up to wage war on targeted groups utilizing deception, infiltration, espionage and entrapment. CONFISCATION OF PROPERTY – Property and assets are seized from people who are members of targeted group. Property may be divided between the informer and the state. REMOVAL FROM SOCIETY – Prisons, rehabilitation camps, ‘hospitals’, executions and genocide…

      “Kill Them All” “Zero Tolerance”

      With MaxCap contracts for tax paid profit prisons Neocons have decided it would be more merciful to make $35k/head/yr than just kill the innocents. Healthy people have become anti profits for fat pharma. Import the third world wages and call it equality! Drove my Chevy to the Levy but the Levy was dry…
      So Bye Bye Miss American Pie…

  5. Freeman says:

    Commenter Danny at Techdirt has a good in-depth description of the technical challenges posed by the court order.

  6. O.B.Server says:

    My cynical guess here is that the FBI can crack those babies as if they had been encoded using a Super Secret Ovaltine Decoder Ring. There is some evidence the FBI has cracked such phones before.

    But snoopers want people to think it is difficult to do, so that once again, like the pre-Snowden days, people assume no one can listen/see, is listening, would listen, etc. So they speak more freely…

    The system they have, by the way, listens to the content of everything, looking for drug-related key-words. Once that is automatically found, it is then laundered via DEA SOD to your local PD, whereupon a “parallel construction” pretext (lie) is trumped up to arrest you and locate the dope. Property is then “forfeited” (loot stolen) and divided between local PD and the Feds.

    A bit like that dangerous terrorist (Einstein) who possessed a weapon (a butter knife) – so of course the national socialist government was justified in forfeiting his bank account. Because, the law is the law. (Romans 13, after all.)

  7. Will says:

    Related, from a few years back;

    CIA Chief: We’ll Spy on You Through Your Dishwasher

  8. Daniel Williams says:

    I side with Apple. If the government would allow consenting adults to pay for sex with whomever they choose and consume whatever drugs they wish – two ‘crimes’ the NSA has provided info to law enforcement far more often than terrorism, I’d let them metadata my ass till the cows come home. Until then, keep encryption strong and the bastards at bay.

    • Will says:

      Exactly. And the FBI has already proved they cannot restrain themselves;

      FBI, Telecoms Teamed to Breach Wiretap Laws

      So now they want encryption to be breakable for their purposes, claiming they’ll remain “within the law” and limit their activities to special cases. Bullshit.

      • jean valjean says:

        “Remember the Patriot Act? One of the provisions was normalizing the “sneak and peek” provision to protect us from terrorists,(this allows them to break into your home surreptitiously and not inform you even after the fact, so you can’t challenge the warrant because you don’t know it happened – they can also take things by pretending it’s a burglary).”

  9. Tony Aroma says:

    Looks like it’s been delayed, doesn’t say how long.

    SCOTUS Marijuana Legalization Case Postponed

    America has been anticipating a federal marijuana legalization decision by the Supreme Court that should have taken place on February 19, but there was a delay due to the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.

  10. Trotsky's Icepick says:

    I guess the 70 times iPhones were unlocked the bestest corporation ever wasn’t standing up for the fourth amemdment (?):

    • Pete says:

      Yeah, that’s another reason why it’s important to be very specific about the details in this case. That 70 times bullshit that’s going around is another real distraction from the facts. No, Apple Has Not Unlocked 70 iPhones For Law Enforcement

      • Thorsten Fassbinder says:

        Is there an official statement from Apple disputing the 70 unlocked iPhones number?
        The macdaily fanboy page and techcrunch have editorials disputing the 70 number but no word from the company.
        Are Motherboard/Vice, New York Daily News and the Daily Beast going to be in contact with Apple’s lawyers regarding these “bullshit” stories?

        • Duncan20903 says:


          Yeah Pete! Because Enquiring minds want to know!!

          If people are going to use an argument to authority fallacy then people really should pick authorities which are actually authoritative to back their arguments.

          PS I don’t care one way or the other about Apple or its back door adventures. Well not beyond hoping that they’ll turn the tables and make the Feds say uncle.

        • Pete says:

          New York Times has printed a correction on their story. Please note that the dispute isn’t over the “70 number” but that those are an entirely different process.

  11. The War Against Terrorism (TWAT) says:

    I’m sure the evil terrorist (if you’re not with us you’re against us) put all the details on his work supplied iPhone.

  12. Manu Silvan says:

    …the Techrunch author is being disingenuous. The data on the 70 other devices was also “secured” behind a pin even though not encrypted. Apple built tools to extract the unencrypted data from the phones without entering a pin. Similarly, Apple could write a tool to flash this phone with a build that does not enforce the wipe rule. Just because the security Apple is helping circumvent in this case is slightly harder for an outsider to circumvent than the security they circumvented previously, that doesn’t mean that it absolves Apple from being compelled to circumvent it when presented with the proper legal order.

    (hat tip to Learn To Spell)

    • Pete says:

      I don’t see that it was being disingenuous at all. The point is clear that what Apple did in the past on those other phones was an entirely different process – a different kind of request from the government. What Apple was able to do on those phones would not work on this phone in question. The FBI is asking Apple to create something new on its behalf, and Apple has the right to refuse. Apple does not have to be an agent of the federal government – it has to supply any information it has in response to a proper legal order, but cannot be compelled to create.

  13. Of course the selective drug prohibition has been the impetus for the overwhelming majority of the “sneak and peek” intrusions. The drug war has been and is the number one source of tyranny in this nation of tyranny, by far!
    They must all be removed from power in an all-encompassing revolution!

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