On 2 December 2015, Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, opened fire on a group of colleagues. The San Bernadino attack wasn’t the first planned by the group, but the first to succeed with such brutal consequences.
14 people died in a day which will live on in infamy and effect the lives of many, not least of which those who knew and loved those in the incident. At the time, ISIS praised the attacks, without claiming responsibility for them.
The US government, through the FBI responded strongly. Among many other measures in the case, both big and small, the FBI seized the phones of the attackers. One of these, an iPhone, has now caused one of the biggest companies in the world to face the biggest government in the world over one of the greatest issues of modern times, privacy.
iPhones are renown for their security. Their payment mechanism, Apple iPay is reliant on a specifically designed chip and physical circuitry on the iPhone. Apply take security, and privacy, seriously.
Unfortunately, in legal terms, what’s private (and reasonably so) to the majority of individuals may be unreasonable in the case of one wishing to do others harm. This isn’t a new argument. The issue has always been that a blanket line needs to be drawn between the right to privacy and the need for the security services to perform their jobs.
As we work on the beta of our own cloud based application, Pocket Card Wallet, we feel these issues intimately. We take security as of the utmost important, both for our customers, and the public at large.
This line can’t be drawn one way for everybody, another for those who are a danger. We often don’t know for sure who is a danger until and unless that right to privacy has been breached.
Breaching the right to privacy
James Comey, the director of the FBI has said that part of the evidence which they require is on one of the shooter’s iPhones. Unfortunately for the FBI, Apple’s devices are protected against brute force attacks.
These are attacks where a computer effectively tries every password in its library (often millions of possibilities) one at a time at super high speed. Eventually, one of these will probably be right. In a world in which there are 99,999 possible combinations, for example, it’s a simple task for a computer to try each and every combination, something which would take an individual a world of impractical patience.
In 2014, Apply added a further layer of security. iPhones are encrypted so that even when faced with a Court Order forcing Apple to unlock a phone, the company simply is not capable of doing so.
All very well for the average consumer. Now however, in light of the San Bernadino shootings, the US Government and Apple are squaring up to one another.
The FBI are requesting that Apple make versions of iOS with inbuilt measures which would allow the US government to access the information on the phones.
We all want to see the security services able to perform their duties safely, and within the remit of the law. However, we also want our own privacy..
Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple has simply refused to comply, siting the possibility of the software being a liability when put into the “wrong hands”, whoever’s hands they might be.
“The government is asking Apple to hack our own users” he wrote, a fair point. Years of advancements in terms of additional security and confidence in the vast amounts of information we share on our pocket devices could be undermined by this move to literally weaken the security of the devices. Decades of financial investment in security would also be lost.
While a federal judge has ordered Apple to turn off its encryption, the security measures preventing a brute force attack would potentially require the US government to work on the iPhone for over five years before they are capable of accessing the information contained therein.
“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,” cook wrote.
It’s increasingly difficult for governments to tell giant multinational companies what to do, particularly with key products which lead to huge revenue implications, should those products be changed.
“ultimately”, Cook wrote, “we fear that this demand would undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect.”
Looks like the debate isn’t going anywhere just yet.