The FBI announced yesterday that a method brought to it by an undisclosed third party allowed it to break into the cell phone of Syed Farook, one of the San Bernardino terrorists who died with his wife in a gun battle with police after the couple had killed 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif., on December 2, 2015. The FBI urgently wanted to access the data on Farook’s phone because of concerns that he had accomplices who might be planning other terrorist attacks.
Because it successfully hacked into Farook’s phone, the government dropped its legal action to force Apple to give it access to this phone.
This development further undermines Apple’s arguments about smartphone encryption and privacy. I wrote at National Review Online in February that Apple’s refusal to follow court orders and help the government break into Farook’s iPhone contradicted Apple’s earlier claims that bypassing encryption was technically impossible. Apple changed its position from “we can’t cooperate” to “we refuse to cooperate.”
Apple then began a public campaign claiming that the government was trying to force it to create software to break into its phones. Apple CEO Tim Cook said this would put the security of all Apple users at risk. His company, he warned, would be required to write a program for the FBI that amounted to the “software equivalent of cancer.”
None of this was true. A federal judge had only ordered Apple to provide “reasonable technical assistance” to help the FBI access this one phone by bypassing a program that erases the phone’s data if too many incorrect passwords are entered. Apple was never asked to give the government a backdoor to all iPhones.
But this week an unnamed third party found a way around the iPhone’s encryption program. This proves that Apple was wrong to claim that the only way to break into an iPhone was for its software engineers to write a complex “backdoor” program. This confirms my view that Apple’s objections to helping the government break into Farook’s phone had nothing to do with technical difficulties. In fact, it was probably a ploy to appeal to its customers, many of whom are anti-government privacy fanatics inspired by the traitor Edward Snowden.
So where does this leave us?
Even though Apple refused to cooperate with the FBI, it now wants to know how the FBI broke into Farook’s phone. The government withdrew its case against Apple, so the FBI does not have to reveal this information to Apple. Because this technique could prove to be an important new tool to fight terrorism, government officials must ensure that it does not leak.
There are other smartphones the government wants to access to solve a variety of crimes. British foreign secretary William Hague recently wrote in the Telegraph that the Brussels terrorist attacks demonstrate why the government must have the capability to crack terrorist communications. The technique used to break into Farook’s phone might help the government access data on phones that belong to other terrorist and criminal suspects, but the authorities will probably need to take legal action in the future to compel smartphone makers to help crack these phones.
Apple’s false claim that it needed to write special software to hack into Farook’s phone, and that this software would compromise the privacy of all cell-phone users, will place the company in a much weaker position the next time the government goes to court to compel Apple’s help in accessing the phone data of a suspected terrorist. Wise judges in future terrorist cases will quickly dismiss this type of argument by Apple and compel it to immediately cooperate with law enforcement.
If Apple continues to place sales ahead of security with bogus privacy claims about smartphone encryption, Congress and the courts will need to take action.