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Apple Sets Stage for Huge Encryption Showdown with Feds

Apple CEO Tim Cook has set the stage for a showdown with law enforcement that will have significant ramifications on the future of encryption used to ensure privacy on individuals' devices. A stunning court order last night ordered Apple to help the FBI decrypt the iPhone of the suspected terrorist who gunned down 14 people in December's infamous attack in San Bernardino, Calif.

The FBI has reportedly tried on its own using brute force password-breaking techniques to decrypt the iPhone of Syed Rizwan Farook, who, along with his wife Tashfeen Malik, was responsible for the attack. When Apple had refused to cooperate, the FBI sued and was handed a victory in a California Federal District Court by Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym to help access the contents of the phone. The FBI is trying to determine if the two attackers were part of a larger terror ring and by accessing the contents of the phone can help determine if additional attacks are looming.

Cook was swift and predictably (based on prior public statements about the issue in general) issued a statement refusing to comply with the order. Noting that Apple has no sympathy for terrorists, Cook stated:

We have great respect for the professionals at the FBI, and we believe their intentions are good. Up to this point, we have done everything that is both within our power and within the law to help them. But now the U.S. government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create. They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone.

Specifically, the FBI wants us to make a new version of the iPhone operating system, circumventing several important security features, and install it on an iPhone recovered during the investigation. In the wrong hands, this software -- which does not exist today -- would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone's physical possession.

The FBI may use different words to describe this tool, but make no mistake: Building a version of iOS that bypasses security in this way would undeniably create a backdoor. And while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control.

The government argues it needs such backdoors to protect people, as Eileen Decker, the U.S. Attorney for Central California, which serves Bernardino, told The New York Times. "We have made a solemn commitment to the victims and their families that we will leave no stone unturned as we gather as much information and evidence as possible. These victims and families deserve nothing less."

Nevertheless, the order, if Apple or anyone else were to comply, could have a chilling effect on the future of privacy. The Electronic Frontier Foundation applauded Apple's defiance. "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," said Kurt Opsahl, the EFF's deputy director and general counsel, in a statement. "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 fact that Apple is refusing to help the FBI is not surprising as it, and other tech giants including Microsoft and Google, has stated its promise to protect user privacy. The most noteworthy example until now was Microsoft's challenge to a court order demanding it provide access to e-mail in a Dublin datacenter. In the case of Apple, the government is asking the company to help it develop a backdoor.

It is already a huge national story that will likely work its way into the most divisive presidential campaign in recent memory. Given this case could reach the Supreme Court, it could also raise the tenor of the debate over filling the seat that's now open following Saturday's death of Justice Antonin Scalia.

So do you think Apple and other companies should create backdoors or do you support its refusal to comply?

Posted by Jeffrey Schwartz on 02/17/2016 at 1:16 PM


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