The Internet has been buzzing with excitement over the open letter published by Apple a couple of days ago. For the unaware, Tim Cook’s letter, titled – “A Message to Our Customers” – is an impressively aggressive statement that addresses the importance of encryption. The letter came about as a result of a court order requesting Apple’s assistance in the FBI’s investigation of the San Bernadino terrorist attack that took place in December of last year.
What does the FBI actually want?
The court mandated that Apple helps the FBI unlock and decrypt the iPhone 5c of the attacker. Due to Apple’s current stance on encryption, iOS – iPhone firmware (operating system) – does not have a backdoor, meaning that Apple physically couldn’t unlock the iPhone even if they wanted to.
Part of the FBI request to Apple.
Although the FBI isn’t technically asking Apple to break their encryption, what they are asking for is equally as dangerous. In short, the FBI wants Apple to build a custom firmware that will prevent the phone from erasing itself after 10 failed passcode attempts, along with removing the passcode delay between incorrect attempts.
These two changes will grant the FBI the ability to try every possible 4-digit combination (of which there are 10,000) until the phone is unlocked. Additionally, the FBI is also requesting that the custom firmware is able to accept the passcode electronically, so that they could brute force the combination in a matter of minutes, or even seconds.
In the past (up to iOS 7) Apple helped the authorities extract any required data, given a proper warrant. With iOS 8, however, Apple introduced a higher standard of encryption to their devices, which now prevents them, or anyone else, from accessing data on any locked iPhone, regardless of whether or not a warrant is present. And despite a number of previous cases dealing with similar issues, Apple was never ordered to build a custom firmware until this week, and unsurprisingly, Tim Cook is not pleased.
Tim Cook fights back
In his letter, Cook writes that although FBI’s intentions might be good, putting a backdoor into the iPhone is very dangerous. This backdoor would not only allow anyone access to any iPhone in their physical possession, but it will also set a troubling precedent.
Despite the government’s argument that the use of this firmware is to be limited to this case, there is simply no way to guarantee such control. Once the backdoor is created, millions of iPhone users will no longer be able to rely on the encryption, and their privacy will be compromised. The letter, which is published here, goes into much more depth on the issue.
Since Apple published their letter two days ago, other major voices in the tech industry came out to publicly back Tim Cook’s statements. Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google, recently published a letter of his own – echoing Cook’s encryption concerns. WhatsApp‘s Jan Koum chimed in too, saying that he “admires Tim Cook for his stance on privacy and Apple’s efforts to protect user data.”
Slowly but surely, more and more companies, including the likes of Microsoft and Mozilla, are coming together to back Apple in their fight against the FBI for customers’ right to privacy.
At the current time, Apple said that they will not comply with the order, but instead challenge the FBI’s demands with “the deepest respect for American democracy and a love for our country.”