FBI vs. Apple: What's at Stake in Encryption Fight

Posted Feb. 24, 2016

MP3 Interview with Joseph Lorenzo Hall, chief technologist with the Center for Democracy and Technology, conducted by Scott Harris

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A federal judge issued an order on Feb. 16, requiring the Apple computer company to produce software for the FBI that can unlock the iPhone used by one of the deceased attackers who killed 14 people and wounded 22 at a holiday party at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California on Dec. 2, 2015. The order does not ask Apple to break the phone's encryption, but rather to disable the iPhone's feature that deletes all data on the phone after a user enters an incorrect password 10 times.

In explaining Apple's decision to defy the court order, the company's CEO, Tim Cook, said such a step would dangerously weaken iPhone security. "Once created," Cook maintained, "the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices. In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks — from restaurants and banks to stores and homes. No reasonable person would find that acceptable." Cook went on to say, "Opposing this order is not something we take lightly. We feel we must speak up in the face of what we see as an overreach by the U.S. government." Instead, Cook says, the government should withdraw its request and appoint a commission to explore the issues of security and privacy.

Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with Joseph Lorenzo Hall, chief technologist with the Center for Democracy and Technology. Here, he talks about his group's support for Apple's refusal to unlock the iPhone and build a backdoor that can be used for surveillance by law enforcement, or exploited by hackers.

JOSEPH LORENZO HALL: What the FBI is asking for is for Apple to create a new version of their iOS operating system. Essentially, you can think of that as FBIOS – instead of iOS, which is the term that Apple calls its operating system – and produce a version which technically doesn't defeat the encryption that the iPhone and other Apple iOS devices use. It's actually quite strong, but instead sort of messes around with the "glue" that keeps the encryption pieces together and sort of makes it much easier to not have to use the encryption, so to speak. So if you think of it as encryption as a door that you can lock to protect the stuff on your phone, they're asking Apple to sort of weaken the frame that the door stands in, so to speak.

And in this case, the thing that troubles a lot of us on one hand is a company being sort of forced by the government to create a tool of surveillance, a version of the operating system that doesn't have the protections that the normal version does, specifically for eavesdropping. And we're concerned with a number of things, for example, if this thing were to get out and it not be properly controlled so that it only ran on that phone – that one horrible person's phone who killed a bunch of people. It could potentially be used on any number of the hundreds of millions of iOS devices. And more importantly, this means that the regular investigation – not national security or terrorism investigations – will now be potentially, those kinds of techniques, could be used on a whole number of other devices. So you can imagine the the Googles, the Facebooks of the world being required to hand over data that they never possessed, but they created specifically for the government to aid in either criminal investigations or other kinds of surveillance activities.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Joseph, is there any kind of room for compromise here in your view, where Apple, for example, could extract the data from this particular phone used by this alleged terrorist and not give the FBI a backdoor to all of its smartphones?

JOSEPH LORENZO HALL: When it comes to compromise, Apple has cooperated quite a bit with this investigation, very willingly. You know the people who run the compliance departments of these companies really want to see things work out in the sense that people have the agents get the data they need to investigate these hard cases. The trick here is that this kind of thing is going to be used not only in those kind of cases, but many, many other cases. So when it comes to compromise, I think we've gone a little past that to the point where we want to make sure that everyone can know that if you send a message on an iOS device, and it's blue, you know, I tell people if it's blue, that means you're protected and the only keys that reside that can decrypt that individual message lie on your phone and the other phone in the communication. And that gives people quite a bit of confidence to use that for a variety of things. And unfortunately, if there is a compromise, it results in many, many, many phones becoming transparent to law enforcement in the future, people are going to stop using these devices for more important things in their life, like intimate activities like finance and health kinds of things. And that's really some of the things we worry about in the scope of compromise.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Well, just a final question. Apple CEO Tim Cook has called on the FBI to withdraw its demand for a backdoor to iPhone encryption and instead participate in a national commission to debate the issues of privacy and security and to take on some of the difficult issues here in this case with the iPhone connected to the San Bernadino massacre.

JOSEPH LORENZO HALL: Here, a lot of us have been saying, "Look, let's not talk so much, or spend our time – wasting our time, frankly – with these very, very heavy-duty legal cases and these deep, deep technical questions that are very, very hard to explain and instead, we should spend our time thinking about what the police going to do, and the intelligence agencies of the world, going to do when the world is increasingly, ubiquitously encrypted with these complicated kinds of things. That's what we need to spend time on, not trying to sort of preserve the vestiges of the past, in terms of wiretapping and putting two little alligator clips on a copper phone line to listen in on bad guys. You know, bad guys – sophisticated bad guys – know what they're doing. They know how to avoid these things. And so, having a really deep investigation, discussion, commission, whatever you want to call it into alternatives getting access to this information and the kinds of capabilities that our law enforcement entities are going to need increasingly in the future to be able to combat crime. That's where we want to spend our time, not things that are hanging in the balance – the potential security of hundreds of millions of people and their phones.

Find more information on the Center for Democracy and Technology by visiting cdt.org.

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