Data Privacy and Security

Apple-FBI: Have the Brussels attacks strengthened security over privacy debate?

“We need freedom but if the freedom is now killing ourselves its time we review the security of all technologies - FBI vs Apple” read a tweet posted earlier.

The on-going battle between Apple and the FBI on the issue of national security versus consumer privacy took on new meaning after the terrorist attacks in Brussels yesterday. Brian Caplen, Editor of The Banker sees these attacks as further proof that technology companies should be doing more to assist the government in fighting terrorism. “Tech companies seem to occupy a privileged position when it comes to co-operating with the authorities to fight terrorism,” Caplen argues in his blog.  

But the matter is complex. After the acts of terrorism in San Bernardino last year, Apple has been working closely with the FBI to assist them in solving the crime. But now the FBI wants Apple to “build a backdoor to the iPhone” which could have the potential to “unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession”. This has far-reaching implications and could set a dangerous precedent.

FBI Director James Comey says there is already a “door on the iPhone” and all he wants is for Apple to take the “vicious guard dog away” and let the FBI “pick the lock”.

The FBI says this is a one-off and only limited to the San Bernardino case. But can this really be guaranteed?

What is the legal point of view?

Olathe attorney David Langston believes that if Apple loses the case, then it could impact cases in the metro area and be “used in Olathe, Kansas City or anywhere in the United States where law enforcement says we need to get into a phone”. Australian lawyer Delvene Michael thinks that there is no guarantee that it won’t be used again or fall into the wrong hands.

“We are all well aware of the power of hackers in this day and age. Should this new OS be hacked, and make no mistake, there will be numerous hackers that will try to access this OS, then all iPhones are at risk,” Michael says in her blog.

Can the FBI even get into the iPhone without Apple’s help?

The FBI has said it might not need Apple’s help after all in the San Bernardino case to unlock the iPhone. This has led to numerous debates on who the FBI is working with to achieve this and whether it is even possible.

ReadySignOn thinks it is theoretically possible to remove the “guard dog” without Apple’s help. But “it will inevitably be met with engineering hurdles, and the lack of in-depth knowledge of the iPhone software and hardware at low implementation level could easily thwart such ambitious venture at any juncture.”

Security firm Wandera tells IDG Connect that it is less about ‘if’ the FBI will be successful and more about ‘when’ they will gain access to the iPhone.

“I suspect that the FBI will ultimately unlock the San Bernardino iPhone, with or without Apple’s assistance,” says Michael Covington, VP of Product at Wandera. “Regardless of who ultimately breaks the encryption, they will have to exploit an existing vulnerability to do so. This is precisely why security professionals stress the importance of staying current with software updates and patches.”

Who could the FBI be working with?

Jonathan Zdziarski thinks it is likely that the FBI is working with a third party contractor like a forensics or data recovery firm. As he writes in his blog: “An external forensics company, with hardware capabilities, is likely copying the NAND storage off the chip and frequently re-copying all or part of the chip’s contents back to the device in order to brute force the pin – and may or may not also be using older gear from iOS 8 techniques to do it.”


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Ayesha Salim

Ayesha Salim is Staff Writer at IDG Connect

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