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Mixed Reactions From Major Tech Companies On Apple’s Backdoor Fight With FBI

This week, a federal judge ordered Apple to provide technical assistance to the FBI in order to make it easier for the FBI to brute-force the PIN of the iPhone 5C owned by the San Bernardino shooter. The request included having Apple send a malicious update in the form of a custom operating system image with removed security protections to that phone.

Apple has refused because it worries this could set a dangerous precedent and could lead to the government forcing the company to weaken the security of all of its devices in order to comply with such orders, which could leave everyone more exposed to digital attacks.

Some companies have spoken out in support of Apple’s position, while others seem to have been a little more careful in their statements or even silent about this issue.

Google was one of the first companies to speak out about it. Its CEO, Sundar Pichai released the following statement as a series of tweets:

“Forcing companies to enable hacking could compromise users’ privacy. We know that law enforcement and intelligence agencies face significant challenges in protecting the public against crime and terrorism. We build secure products to keep your information safe and we give law enforcement access to data based on valid legal orders. But that’s wholly different than requiring companies to enable hacking of customer devices & data. Could be a troubling precedent,” said Pichai.

Google has followed Apple in mandating that all Android 6.0 devices and beyond are encrypted by default (with some exceptions for low-end phones that have slow flash storage), so this case could have significant implications for Android phones, as well.

Whatsapp’s founder, Jan Koum, whose chat application has embraced end-to-end encryption, also made a comment about this, defending Apple:

"I have always admired Tim Cook for his stance on privacy and Apple's efforts to protect user data and couldn't agree more with everything said in their Customer Letter today. We must not allow this dangerous precedent to be set. Today our freedom and our liberty is at stake," wrote Koum.

Whatsapp is now owned by Facebook, but so far Facebook hasn’t released a statement of its own. Whatsapp faced a ban in Brazil last year for similar reasons, and Facebook was quick to condemn the move by the lower Court judge then.

Microsoft, Twitter and Amazon have also been silent thus far. Some of these companies have also tightened their relationship with the U.S. government in the past few years. Twitter has become more willing to employ censorship, not just in the U.S., but all over the world; Amazon has the CIA as one of its largest cloud service customers; and Microsoft has just signed a large deal with the Pentagon to standardize its PCs on Windows 10.

Not having as close of a relationship with the U.S. government may be why Apple is more willing to fight hard against what it believes are abuses of power and a dangerous slippery slope for digital privacy rights in the U.S..

The only thing coming close to a reaction from these companies is a response from the Reform Government Surveillance group, which does include Apple itself, as well as Google, Microsoft, Twitter and Facebook:

“Reform Government Surveillance companies believe it is extremely important to deter terrorists and criminals and to help law enforcement by processing legal orders for information in order to keep us all safe. But technology companies should not be required to build in backdoors to the technologies that keep their users’ information secure,” said the coalition’s official statement.“RGS companies remain committed to providing law enforcement with the help it needs while protecting the security of their customers and their customers’ information,” the group added.

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

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  • fractal123
    "The request included having Apple send a malicious update in the form of a custom operating system image with removed security protections to that phone. ..."

    This is why anyone who cares about privacy, security, or governmental overreach should NOT use Windows 10, which will force updates to your computer whether you want to install them or not.

    Linux here I come.
    Reply
  • toddybody
    How is/was the FBI request a defacto requirement to build in encryption backdoors for the feds?

    From what I've read, it seemed like a normal legal order to assist (especially since we're talking about a phone that's 2 years old). I'm 100% for privacy rights, but tbh Cook/Apple is really more committed to global sales (i.e., global markets dont want HW/SW that's built to provide a government whole hog security circumvention) than user privacy. Where was my (and millions of others) privacy when Apple was performing geo trending of users a few years back without their knowledge/consent?

    Ehhhh, I'm obviously missing something.
    Reply
  • c4s2k3
    How is/was the FBI request a defacto requirement to build in encryption backdoors for the feds?

    From what I've read, it seemed like a normal legal order to assist (especially since we're talking about a phone that's 2 years old). I'm 100% for privacy rights, but tbh Cook/Apple is really more committed to global sales (i.e., global markets dont want HW/SW that's built to provide a government whole hog security circumvention) than user privacy. Where was my (and millions of others) privacy when Apple was performing geo trending of users a few years back without their knowledge/consent?

    Ehhhh, I'm obviously missing something.

    Apple would have to build a 'tool' (special OS version) that allows anyone (Apple, or the Feds to begin with) to circumvent one of the security features (wipe device after failed passcode attempts) that Apple specifically designed into their products to help protect end-user (consumer) data. Up to you whether you want to call that a back door or not.

    The main point is that once such a tool exists, it will be very hard to keep it out of the 'wrong' hands. Some local jurisdictions have already piped up saying "Hey, we could really use something like that in some of our own investigations." You potentially expose hundred of millions of users of iDevices to malicious access to their private information.

    Is there a marketing side to the issue? Sure. Would you buy a mobile device you know to be inherently crackable?
    Reply
  • firefoxx04
    It does not matter how good the intentions are, there is too much risk of abuse and for this to fall into the hands of people who would use it to harm innocent people. The same reason why banning encryption is suicidal.
    Reply
  • jeremy2020
    Where is the "mixed" reaction? All of the statements that were made were in support of Privacy.
    Reply
  • xHDx
    How stupid can politions be?

    So, they want to further protect the security of devices and the US by making an exploit and then announcing it for everyone to see. The outcome is pretty simple:

    1. A backdoor will be created for said products.
    2. The backdoor will be found out eventually and customer details released. Then what?

    Instead of the apps being non-encryption capable, like they're trying to enforce. Why not just forward details needed locally to the FBI or CIA instead of having it view live. All they do is filter it to find information. What's gonna change if they do it with a slight delay with no risk of customer information being released.
    Reply
  • skit75
    Without the 10 incorrect "guesses" wipe feature, a numeric 4 digit pass-code on the iphone is useless and can be cracked in a fraction of a second very short amount of time, by most computers. There are only 10,000 possible combinations, which is a remarkably low number in the encryption\decryption world.

    Is the FBI also asking banks to remove the "eat my debit card" feature on ATMs for incorrect guesses? Slippery slope here...... very slippery slope.
    Reply
  • problematiq
    The bigger issue here is "Precedent" that would be created if apple gives in, meaning if the FBI wants access to ANY other device on the grounds of "Terrorism!" (If you note, every country right now is attacking it's own citizens rights on that bases).
    The judge would less likely to question the request, or if they did the FBI has this case to point out for grounds.
    Reply
  • problematiq
    Without the 10 incorrect "guesses" wipe feature, a numeric 4 digit pass-code on the iphone is useless and can be cracked in a fraction of a second very short amount of time, by most computers. There are only 10,000 possible combinations, which is a remarkably low number in the encryption\decryption world.

    Is the FBI also asking banks to remove the "eat my debit card" feature on ATMs for incorrect guesses? Slippery slope here...... very slippery slope.

    At 80ms per guess, (the hardware is set to only accept 80ms between guess') it'll take the FBI this long:
    4 digit PIN - 13.3 minutes
    6 digit PIN - 22.2 hours
    6 letter password - 300+ years
    Reply
  • panders4
    The point is moot. Apple cannot be compelled to create a new firmware by court order. The court can subpoena records, but forcing them to create something like a new firmware is illegal and akin to slavery.
    Reply