Fear Not: The FBI Can Break Into Your iPhone
Less than a month since Apple publicly shamed the FBI for trying to force the tech giant to unlock its encrypted phones, the FBI has announced that it finally managed to hack into the smartphones without Apple’s help. It’s a troubling bookend to a story that will likely have wide-reaching ramifications for anti-terrorism and cybersecurity going forward.
First, a recap. In the aftermath of the horrific San Bernardino shooting, FBI agents have been trying to access shooter Rizwan Farook’s iPhone, which they believe might withhold info critical to their investigation. However, hacking into the phone proved much more difficult than episodes of NCIS have led us to believe. In order to access the phone in full, the FBI would need to bypass Apple’s encryption security, which threatened to wipe the phone clean if the FBI failed to enter the correct passcode in ten tries.
Initially, it seemed like the FBI would be stonewalled unless they were able to enlist the help of Apple’s engineers. However, instead of complying with the feds’ request, Apple CEO Tim Cook took the matter and made it public, publishing a heartfelt letter outlining the digital dangers of decryption. If the FBI were able to access this one phone, they’d be able to replicate the process and access all sorts of phones, undermining “the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect.”
Last week, at Apple’s Keynote address, Cook reiterated the importance of privacy. “We need to decide as a nation how much power the government should have over our data and over our privacy,” he told the crowd. Consider the amount of information your phones withhold—banking numbers, contacts, those drunk nudies you forgot to delete. No one’s data—no one’s dick pics—would be safe.
The two Goliaths were set up to take this matter to court—a rare case where corporations and government butt heads over privacy matters. The implications were tantalizing. The drama, palpable. But just as we had finished pouring our Malbecs and settled into our ottomans, the FBI announced that their Cruise-less Mission: Impossible had been resolved and dropped the case.
The agency sidestepped Apple entirely, enlisting an unnamed third-party for help in order to access the shooter’s phone. Ironically, Apple’s clarion call for privacy might have proved its undoing, since authorities say they were only contacted by interested hackers once the story became public.
However, there are still some lingering questions regarding the case. If the FBI’s probe reveals vital information in their San Bernadino investigation, smartphone decryption could become a major tool in the U.S.’s ongoing campaign against terrorism, and could even blossom into a crime fighting tool. Imagine if the TSA’s queues included smartphone screening.
Furthermore, we don’t know exactly how the FBI got into the phone. Did they use brute force to get in, or did they create a smartphone skeleton key, allowing them into any backdoor they please? Due to an Obama-passed process called “equities review,” the FBI might be required to disclose the security vulnerability to Apple, thereby allowing Apple to close its system. Some speculate that if the FBI doesn’t comply, Apple might countersue in order to learn more about the particulars of the FBI’s hacking, and bring their privacy concerns to a judicial hearing.
Regardless, the FBI has found a way into iPhones worldwide. As our lives becomes more and more digitized, fitting snugly into our pockets, do we give up that information willingly, or should we worry about the potential for misapplication? Silicon Valley has taken its stand. Will the public follow?
Main image from Amazon. Additional images from ABCNews.
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