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FBI vs Apple vs the Consequences

iPhone 5C, FBI Edition

There has been a lot of conversations about the court order that the FBI has filed on Apple.  If you are following this story and have not yet read the court order, you should read it now.

The FBI is asking for Apple to disable the code that slows down and locks access to the device when too many incorrect pass codes are entered. They are not asking for Apple to decrypt anything and have stated that Apple could keep possession of the device.  The Trail of Bits blog has a very write up of how Apple could comply with this request.

My initial thought was that this was a reasonable request.   What tipped me over to Apple’s view was what will happen afterwards.  Once this becomes a precedent, other countries could make the same request of Apple.  Countries with a less than stellar record of civil rights. The 800 lb gorilla in that room would be China. The same people who brought us the Golden Shield Project (aka the Great Firewall of China) would now have the opportunity to add new laws requiring backdoors into all mobile devices sold in their country. You may have seen the tweet from Snowden on this subject:

There are other ways that the FBI can get some of information that would be on the phone.  I would assume that they have already subpoenaed the mobile carrier to get the phone records.  That would tell the FBI who was talking to Farook and Malik.  According to the court order, the phone was on the Verizon network.  If Farook and/or Malik were sending SMS text messages, then Verizon has those messages on file and can supply them in response to a court order.  If they were using iMessage and were backing the phone up to iCloud, Apple could hand over that information via court order.  There’s a good article on Wired.com that goes over the multiple ways information can be accessed from an iPhone.

Hard cases make bad law.  While I sympathize with the reasons that the FBI is making this request, the long term consequences would be worse.  We  face the real risk of having weaker security in mobile devices.  At the end of the day, Apple is making the right choice in opposing the court order.  It sets a bad legal precedence and they should fight it all the way to the Supreme Court.