Ex-FBI officials explain why the government wants Apple to provide access to the San Bernardino shooter's iPhone

Apple has promised three-fold (in a letter to customers, in a memo to employees, and now, on a new webpage) to fight a court order asking the company to create software that would allow the FBI access to data on one of the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhones.

CEO Tim Cook thinks complying “would undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect.”

Meanwhile, the Justice Department, backing the FBI, has called Apple’s unwillingness mere “concern for its business model and public brand marketing strategy.”

The ideological differences are fated to become one of the most significant battles over digital privacy in recent years.

Despite remarkable support for Apple within the tech community, former FBI officials who spoke to Business Insider portrayed the the government’s request as a “we’ll know it when we see it” situation for several reasons — meaning the government doesn’t necessarily know exactly what it’s looking for, but it needs to look anyway.

Bob Anderson, managing director of expert consulting firm Navigant, served as executive assistant director of the criminal, cyber, response, and services branch of the FBI until December 2015. In his mind,
the high level of collaboration within the US intelligence community makes accessing information like this even more crucial for counter-terrorism.

“[The US intelligence community] all talks and shares information more than [they] ever have. And that’s key,” Anderson said. “You have no idea what other information that could be of intelligence value that could save lives or prevent other people from getting hurt is on [the phone].”

Through various procedures, the FBI can share information with, let’s say, the CIA, Anderson explained. The FBI may have information the CIA doesn’t or vice-versa.

“All of a sudden, an image may come out of that because of bits and pieces of data [another intelligence agency has] that [the FBI doesn’t] know about,” Anderson added. “Those bits and pieces form a clearer picture of potential threats or intelligence, not only to our country but the agencies we work with all around the world.”

Managing director of K2 Intelligence, an investigative and cyber defence firm, and former CTO for the FBI’s cyber division, Milan Patel, echoed that sentiment.

“For example, if there was a telephone number on the phone or there was a message on the phone that identified something relevant, that would be passed to the NSA or CIA to see if in their collection, they found any matches to that name or that number or that phrase or that ID, whatever was on that phone,” Patel said.

Patel used an interesting comparison to discuss the government’s viewpoint in these types of situations: a locked box and an encrypted phone.

“We make that analogy because it’s very, very important to say they’re the same thing for the purposes of the law, which is, if the government has been authorised to check a box, no matter how difficult the box is to get into, you should be able to check the box,” Patel said.

Using Patel’s analogy, the government has only “checked” part of the box. The Department of Justice conceded in filings that the organisation already has the phone’s metadata which revealed with whom the shooters communicated. (That data showed they had no foreign connections.) But “metadata and content are different,” Patel said.

The government can easily court order the shooters’ service provider to find information like location data, and general forensics can reveal trackable information, such as the Apple ID on the phone. But “you’d want the content too,” Patel said.

Content includes “what’s actually on the phone,” according to Patel: notes, emails, messages not backed up on iCloud. “That’s the kind of stuff [the FBI] would be interested in looking at,” he added.

To bypass the encryption and access that information, Apple would have to open a backdoor it created to load new software faster, which Cook argues would put million of customers’ security at risk. Despite FBI director James Comey’s comments that he doesn’t want a “master key,” much of the tech community has expressed worry about the kind of precedent Apple’s forced compliance would set.

“Cybersecurity legend” John McAfee even offered to decrypt the phone for free, so the FBI needn’t knock on Apple’s door.

For its part, non-profit digital rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation issued a strong statement in support of Apple:

For the first time, the government is requesting Apple write brand new code that eliminates key features of iPhone security — security features that protect us all. Essentially, the government is asking Apple to create a master key so that it can open a single phone. And once that master key is created, we’re certain that our government will ask for it again and again, for other phones, and turn this power against any software or device that has the audacity to offer strong security.

The U.S. government wants us to trust that it won’t misuse this power. But we can all imagine the myriad ways this new authority could be abused.

Read the full statement here »


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