Apple And The FBI: Intended And Unintended Consequences Of An iPhone Backdoor

A federal judge ordered Apple to comply with the FBI’s request for technical assistance in the recovery of data from the San Bernardino gunman’s iPhone 5C. The FBI wants Apple to create a custom backdoored firmware for the iPhone 5C that will disable some security features such as the PIN rate limiters and the feature that auto-erases after 10 failed attempts. Then, it wants Apple to push that update to certain phones so the FBI can brute-force them in minutes or hours. This sort of request has both intended (by the FBI) and unintended consequences.

Intended Consequences

De Facto Two-Century Old Backdoor Law

The FBI used the All Writs Act of 1789 to convince a federal judge to compel Apple to unlock an iPhone 5C. If the request stands, it could create a major precedent for how the FBI will deal with technology companies from now on.

“The implications of the government’s demands are chilling. If the government can use the All Writs Act to make it easier to unlock your iPhone, it would have the power to reach into anyone’s device to capture their data. The government could extend this breach of privacy and demand that Apple build surveillance software to intercept your messages, access your health records or financial data, track your location, or even access your phone’s microphone or camera without your knowledge,” said Apple in an open letter.

The FBI hasn’t succeeded in getting Congress to pass a law to backdoor encryption, but if it’s able to force companies to comply with its requests to unlock devices no matter what, then that would be just as good from the FBI’s perspective. It would appear that this is exactly why the FBI wants this case to become a precedent and why it’s fighting so hard against Apple on this.

Weak Security Everywhere

The FBI is “lucky” here, because the iPhone in question is an older version that didn’t have a “Secure Enclave” and some of the stronger encryption features. The encryption and security of the newer iPhones is supposedly protected by the Secure Enclave even against tampering from Apple itself. That would mean Apple couldn’t weaken the security of these devices even if it wanted to.

However, if the FBI gets its way, it could use the example of this case as a precedent for similar cases in the future. If judges presiding over those cases don’t understand the difference between the new and the older iPhones’ security, and why Apple could help the FBI unlock it then but can’t anymore, then Apple could be forced to weaken the security of its iPhones in a more permanent way.

Right now, the FBI’s request is supposedly only going to affect the iPhone 5C, because Apple can modify that security software with an update. If a judge orders Apple to unlock new iPhones as well, then Apple would have to make it so that the Secure Enclave isn’t tamper-proof anymore. For this to work, all the Secure Enclaves in all iPhones would have to be crippled from factory.

Unintended Consequences

Return Of The iPhone Thefts

Some have argued that removing the PIN rate limiter and the auto-erase feature is not the end of the world, but it would actually drastically weaken the PIN security feature. If the FBI is able to brute-force a device’s PIN number in minutes or hours, then so will others.

These PIN protections were added by Apple because, for instance, it didn’t want stolen iPhones to be easily cracked. Now, after arguing for so long that iPhone thefts are a huge problem, the government wants Apple to reverse those protections and make iPhones just as vulnerable to thefts as they were before.

There is, of course, the argument that Apple or the FBI would only use the custom firmware on a case by case basis. However, that ignores the fact that such firmware would work on any such device, and once the FBI has it, there’s no way for Apple or anyone else to ensure it’s not being abused.

“The government suggests this tool could only be used once, on one phone. But that’s simply not true. Once created, 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,” added Apple in its letter.

This sort of power would quickly trickle down to other law enforcement agencies or even the police, just like cell tower simulators (Stingrays) have. Once Apple builds that capability, it’s guaranteed to be asked by other governments to use it as well.

The U.S. government also has a rather poor track record in protecting itself from digital attacks, so if it gets hacked, then those hackers would have access to the same software. It’s no different than the golden key/encryption backdoor discussion from earlier, in this case.

The End Of Secure Apple Pay

If Apple is forced to comply with such requests in the future, even though it technically couldn’t unless they make it so the Secure Enclave can be tampered with, then anything else that is protected by a currently “tamper-proof” enclave, including fingerprint data and credit card information from Apple Pay, could potentially be stolen by malware-infected apps.

“The government is asking Apple to hack our own users and undermine decades of security advancements that protect our customers — including tens of millions of American citizens — from sophisticated hackers and cybercriminals. The same engineers who built strong encryption into the iPhone to protect our users would, ironically, be ordered to weaken those protections and make our users less safe,” said Apple.

Civil Liberties Groups' Support

The ACLU said it would support Apple in this fight against the U.S. government, because it believes the Constitution protects the company against having to hack its own customers:

“This is an unprecedented, unwise, and unlawful move by the government. The Constitution does not permit the government to force companies to hack into their customers' devices. Apple is free to offer a phone that stores information securely, and it must remain so if consumers are to retain any control over their private data," said the ACLU.

The EFF also announced that it will file an amicus brief to support Apple's position.

Fight For The Future (FFTF), another civil liberties group, said it will organize nationwide protests outside of Apple’s stores with a simple message for the U.S. government: "Don’t Break Our Phones."

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

Follow us on FacebookGoogle+RSSTwitter and YouTube.

This thread is closed for comments
    Your comment
  • g-unit1111
    This is why I will never use a phone pay system, or buy a car that has an app to start it from your phone. I do stand with Apple and FFTF on this one.
    Remember when the US used to make fun of these commie totalitarian behaviors in cartoons? There would be a sweet little girl reading a letter from her pen pal, except the voice over was some burly hairy goon speaking in a Slavic accent.
  • TwoDigital
    I thought the FBI was supposed to be this super-smart group of cyber-criminal trackers. If they HAVE the phone, why can't they just read data right from the memory chip and then brute-force it in an environment that doesn't have a 10-chances-and-it-blows-up keycode? Also, if they google this, they can buy this: ... just saying.