Is the FBI's Request for Apple to Create a "Back Door" Into It's Products Unreasonable? Details on the Apple vs. FBI Showdown

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In the showdown between the FBI and Apple there have been several letters addressed to the public from each side of the fence. On the Apple side were letters written by Apple CEO Tim Cook and VP of Software Development Craig Federighi.

On the side of the government was a letter from FBI director James Comey. Who is right and more importantly, what does this mean to the average consumer?

Just the Facts Please

Let’s start with exactly what the FBI is asking Apple to do. On newer iPhones, Apple has implemented a few pieces of technology to protect end user data – encryption and an auto-wipe feature. Encryption takes the data on the phone and secures it by making it impossible to read without the proper keys. There are two ways to bypass encryption – guess the password to unlock the phone or obtain the encryption keys which encoded the data in the first place.

The problem in the FBI vs. Apple case is that no one knows the password for the device. Under other circumstances, the FBI could attempt to guess the password by writing a program and iterating through all known combinations of letters, numbers, symbols, etc. This is called “brute force” hacking. Unfortunately for the FBI, Apple implemented a security feature which will factory reset your phone if you type in the password incorrectly six times. The FBI’s “brute force” method will find a lot more than six incorrect passwords effectively thwarting the FBI’s plans.

The FBI is asking Apple to give them the ability to disable the auto device reset after six failed attempts. They are not asking Apple to break the encryption on the phone as some people claim, nor are they asking for a back-door. By doing this, the FBI can then attempt to guess the password via brute force.

The FBI’s Case

Let’s dissect this from each side starting with the government. As you can imagine, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies will frequently run into cases where criminals use their phones to plan or communicate about crimes. Apple’s encryption and device wipe policy after entering incorrect passwords presents a problem in that law enforcement agencies are essentially hindered by the technology that we expect to protect our privacy.

The FBI is claiming that encryption and other security technologies are a double edged sword – not only do they protect the average consumer’s data from being stolen, it also protects criminals and terrorists. The FBI claims that the data present on locked cell phones can help them with their investigations.

Apple’s Case

On the other side of the fence is Apple. In his public letter, CEO Tim Cook claimed what the FBI was seeking could violate the privacy of every iPhone user out there. By creating a way to bypass the device wipe feature, any phone would be susceptible to being brute force attack. In essence, Apple is worried about the precedence this sets. If the US Government can demand that Apple help authorities into phones in the US, why wouldn’t other governments? What happens if this tool falls into the wrong hands?

This may surprise you at first, but this case is not unprecedented. Cook conveniently failed to mention Apple had already helped authorities unlock phones. In fact, Apple has worked with the authorities to unlock 70 (yes – seven-zero) other phones since 2008.

So why is Apple being so public about this specific case?

The Big Picture

Part of the reason Apple may be reacting the way they are this time is because of the way the FBI is handling this particular case. The San Bernardino shootings were a despicable event that is still very fresh in the minds of the public. The FBI is making this play to get public support for increased control over US companies.

Apple on the other hand is doing just the same. Even though they’ve already worked with authorities to provide access to data on locked phones, they are setting this case up to make Apple look like shining guardians of our privacy.

The government has long worked with technology companies like Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook and others to gain back door access into their data repositories. Remember the Prism project? The case between the FBI and Apple has been stewing for years and both organizations have seized upon recent news to try to bring this issue into the court of public opinion.

Stay tuned for additional updates to this topic as the case moves through the court system.