Third-Party Tech Help Resolves FBI-Apple Standoff Over Killer's iPhone

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2016-03-30 Print this article Print
FBI iPhone Hack

The next step is for the FBI to decrypt the contents of the iPhone that it was able to recover, which is something that Apple can’t help with even if it wanted to. But the FBI has access to the best code-breakers on the planet, the National Security Agency.

The NSA has the skill and the computing power to break the encryption that Apple provided. It might not happen instantly, but it will happen. One of the basic truths about security is that any device can be cracked once you have full access to the device's functions. The FBI has achieved the first stage already, and the next stage is within the government’s capability.

There’s been a lot of speculation about whether the FBI will tell Apple how it got into the iPhone, but in reality that’s not necessary. If the method was the type of forensic extraction that Cellebrite performs, then Apple already knows the answer. If it wasn’t, then the FBI likely won’t tell Apple if only to slow down any development of countermeasures.

Of course those countermeasures are already underway. Apple has already announced that it would be strengthening the security of its products as they’re released. The company will also likely strengthen the security of iCloud, which is where Farook backed up his iPhone until a month and a half before the terrorist attack. Apple has already turned over Farook’s iCloud data as required by a warrant served last year.

A more secure iCloud would probably slow down access by the government, but only to a certain point. If the FBI or some other agency can gain physical access to the iCloud data, then eventually it will be decrypted. The time and effort may discourage such decryption in all but the most significant cases, but decryption is always possible if the stakes are high enough.

Beyond this, the next step in the security arms race is unclear. Apple can still do a lot to make it harder to break into its servers and its devices, but more complex security also means that devices may be harder to use and may operate more slowly.

The FBI can attempt to require that Apple turn over data, but to date this hasn’t worked out very well for the bureau, and the blowback from the public has been pretty bad. The FBI may not want to push its luck, especially in an election year.

The next steps are also unclear. I suspect that the FBI will move forward with decrypting Farook’s iPhone and it's uncertain whether the data it contained will reveal the participation of other individuals or useful information about how he planned the mass shooting that resulted in the deaths of 14 San Bernardino County employees.

But the fundamental legal issues raised by the case won't go away and will emerge again the next time the government wants to break into a highly secure computing device or database.


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