iPhone Unlocking Case About Setting A Precedent, Despite What The FBI Says

The FBI responded to Apple's open letter, which warned the FBI is trying to set a dangerous precedent, by saying the San Bernardino iPhone unlocking case isn't about setting a precedent at all. However, a new report says that the Justice Department is trying to unlock at least 12 other iPhones, none of which are related to cases of terrorism.

The FBI tried to make it very clear in its letter that it wants Apple to only help it unlock the phone in this specific case, and nothing more.

"The San Bernardino litigation isn't about trying to set a precedent or send any kind of message," said James Comey, the FBI Director. "The particular legal issue is actually quite narrow. The relief we seek is limited and its value increasingly obsolete because the technology continues to evolve. We simply want the chance, with a search warrant, to try to guess the terrorist's passcode without the phone essentially self-destructing and without it taking a decade to guess correctly. That's it. We don't want to break anyone's encryption or set a master key loose on the land."

Yet, the new report from the WSJ says exactly the opposite; there are at least 12 other cases where the Justice Department might want to unlock iPhones. Some local law enforcement officials have also made comments about it, saying how FBI's case against Apple could be helpful for their own cases.

"It may be a question of finding the right case," said Jake Wark, the spokesperson for the DA's office from the Suffolk County, Massachusetts.

"It's going to have significant ramifications on us locally," said Matt Rokus, deputy chief of Wisconsin's Eau Claire Police Department.

"The court's ruling could have a significant impact on conducting sensitive criminal investigations," said South Dakota, Minnehaha County State's Attorney, Aaron McGowan.

These comments seem to directly contradict the FBI Director. Plus, if the FBI does win this case, it can't prevent it being used a precedent for other cases. It seems rather obvious that even if the FBI never tries to use it in the future as a precedent, which seems unlikely and hard to believe, others will.

Playing Word Games

FBI's Director, James Comey, is also being quite misleading when he said that they "don't want to break anyone's encryption," while arguing that they want to "try to guess the terrorist's passcode without the phone essentially self-destructing and without it taking a decade to guess correctly."

The very purpose of encryption is to protect a message from being deciphered—not for only a month, or a year, but forever. Saying they don't want to directly decrypt the message with a master key, but only want the ability to easily crack that encryption is ultimately a distinction without a difference, and the FBI is merely playing word games.

It's actually no different than when the U.S. government forced all commercial companies to use 40-bit encryption two decades ago, with the argument that it doesn't want companies to stop using encryption, but it still wants to be able to break that encryption. When encryption can be easily broken or bypassed like that, then it's pointless.

Weak Protection Is No Protection

The FBI wants devices to be protected by only four or six digit PINs with no additional protection, because it knows four or six digit PINs can be easily cracked, which means they aren't very good at protecting information. That's why Apple, and recently Google as well, have added the rate limiter to PIN authentication. When too many ties (more than 10) are attempted, the device wipes itself to protect the data against forced unlocking.

Ultimately, it boils down to one idea: if a security feature can be broken within minutes or hours, then it's not a very good one, and at best it serves as security theater. The better the security, the safer our devices are, and the FBI is arguing the opposite; that our devices shouldn't be very secure so they, and anyone else who might steal the devices, can hack into them and obtain the data.

Anti-Cybersecurity Policy?

Despite its pleas for better cybersecurity and warnings that enemies of the U.S. could take down critical infrastructure or steal vital government information in the past, the U.S. government has quite a hostile attitude towards actual cybersecurity. It seems to believe that any security that can't be bypassed or broken within hours is a bad thing, and we should not accept it in our devices. This type of anti-cybersecurity policy could have quite terrible consequences in the long term, both from an economic and a general security point of view.

Lucian Armasu is a Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware. You can follow him at @lucian_armasu. 

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  • Math Geek
    remember this is only a one time single super ultra important thing that will never need to be repeated!!

    http://www.wsj.com/articles/justice-department-seeks-to-force-apple-to-extract-data-from-about-12-other-iphones-1456202213

    or is it? also keep in mind there are literally hundreds of phones being held by local law enforcement all over the country waiting for apple to give in so they can jump onboard and get these phones hacked as well....

    hopefully no one actually believes that this is only a one time thing, believing that would be just stupid. add in the fact that once the ios is created and the phone is handed over. all the fbi has to do is extract the ios for themselves and they will have their own copy. course they would never do that now would they.......
    11
  • Other Comments
  • koss64
    The Government's stance is to have devices protects, the smaller ther attack surface the less damage will occur in the event of an attack. Using quotes from persons outside the FBI does not necessarily help your case for the phones in this case not to be unlocked.
    Apple is trying to save face in light of the iCloud hacking scandal and trying to put on this notion that they have the public's privacy in mind, when that's far from the truth. I cannot fathom how leaving those phones locked does anyone any good to anyone but Apple and their shareholders, when rest assured in the regular cut and thrust of these matters,non-high profile cases are going to get the phones unlocked with no great fuss or public outcry.
    -14
  • tical2399
    Oh well. The feds did it the right way. They went the legal route and got a warrant for the phone to be unlocked. If apple doesn't comply then Cook needs to be led out doing the perp walk and held in contempt until he has it unlocked. Its not like the feds just asked for no warrant. Due process was done, they had a legit reason for opening it, they asked a court for the warrant, the court agreed and provided an order. For all those who would try to scream rights this and constitution that; what the feds did was the definition of doing it by the book.
    -18
  • Math Geek
    remember this is only a one time single super ultra important thing that will never need to be repeated!!

    http://www.wsj.com/articles/justice-department-seeks-to-force-apple-to-extract-data-from-about-12-other-iphones-1456202213

    or is it? also keep in mind there are literally hundreds of phones being held by local law enforcement all over the country waiting for apple to give in so they can jump onboard and get these phones hacked as well....

    hopefully no one actually believes that this is only a one time thing, believing that would be just stupid. add in the fact that once the ios is created and the phone is handed over. all the fbi has to do is extract the ios for themselves and they will have their own copy. course they would never do that now would they.......
    11