Apple to Fight Judge's Order for "Backdoor" Key to the iPhone

Farook and Malik at Chicago O'Hare International Airport
Farook and Malik at Chicago O'Hare International Airport
U.S. Customs and Border Protection

Apple says it will fight a Southern California federal judge's ruling that orders the company to help prosecutors get inside the iPhone of suspected terrorist Syed Farook who, along with wife Tashfeen Malik, are widely believed responsible for the San Bernardino massacre in December. 

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has fought previous government attempts to gain smartphone master keys, said in a statement last night that "Apple is fighting the order," which it argued would "compromise the security of all its users around the world."

Company CEO Tim Cook, calling the ruling a directive to essentially create a backdoor to all iPhones, subsequently issued a statement saying that the judge's decision "threatens the security of our customers."

"We oppose this order, which has implications far beyond the legal case at hand," he said.

A Riverside judge with the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California yesterday ruled that Apple must help the government crack Farook's iPhone 5c.

Prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles want to get to the bottom of the motive behind the Dec. 2 attack at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, where 14 people, most of whom were Farook's coworkers, were fatally gunned down. Twenty-two others were injured.

Investigators have already said the couple supported terrorist group ISIS and its brand of Islamic extremism, but they want to know if the two communicated with overseas terrorists. There's also an 18-minute time frame Dec. 2 during which the couple's whereabouts are unknown.

"The government requires Apple's assistance to access the subject device to determine, among other things, who Farook and Malik may have communicated with to plan and carry out the IRC shootings, where Farook and Malik may have traveled to and from before and after the incident, and other pertinent information that would provide more information about their and others' involvement in the deadly shooting," the U.S. Attorney's Office said in its request for the court's help.

The filing repeatedly says that it only wants Apple to help with this particular iPhone — "for the SUBJECT DEVICE only" — which was issued to Farook by his employer, the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health, where he worked as an inspector.

Federal prosecutors say the department has granted it permission to search the phone, which is already the subject of a valid warrant.

The request asks Apple to disable a function by which a phone's data, protected by your passcode plus a 256-bit advanced encryption standard "key" (a.k.a. the UID), is destroyed after 10 unsuccessful attempts at punching in the code.

"When a user inputs her passcode, the phone conducts a complex calculation as determined by Apple's software (and unknown to the government) which combines the UID with the user passcode," the government's filing states. "If the result is accurate, the data is decrypted."

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Investigators want to "electronically test passcodes without unnecessary delay or fear" until they get it right, they said in the request.

"Apple has the ability to modify software that is created to only function within the subject device that would ensure that the added auto-erase function is turned off ... ," prosecutors stated.

The request does not prohibit Apple from just unlocking the thing altogether, however — if that's possible.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation says it believes Apple's help in the case, even if minimal, would amount to a "master key" that would allow the government to more easily get into any of our iPhones.

"Once that master key is created, we're certain that our government will ask for it again and again, for other phones, and turn this power against any software or device that has the audacity to offer strong security," the nonprofit organization said in a statement.

"We are supporting Apple here because the government is doing more than simply asking for Apple’s assistance," EFF states. "For the first time, the government is requesting Apple write brand new code that eliminates key features of iPhone security — security features that protect us all."

"The U.S. government wants us to trust that it won't misuse this power," it said. "But we can all imagine the myriad ways this new authority could be abused."

Apple's Cook seemed to agree, saying that "the U.S. government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create. They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone."

"Specifically, the FBI wants us to make a new version of the iPhone operating system, circumventing several important security features, and install it on an iPhone recovered during the investigation," he said. "In the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession."

Eileen M. Decker, the U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles, argues that prosecutors owe it to the families of the victims in San Bernardino to corner the motive in this tragedy.

"We have made a solemn commitment to the victims and their families that we will leave no stone unturned as we gather as much information and evidence as possible," she said last night. "These victims and families deserve nothing less. The application filed today in federal court is another step — a potentially important step — in the process of learning everything we possibly can about the attack in San Bernardino."


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