The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Monday, February 22, 2016

iPhone Follies

In the ongoing controversy between the FBI and Apple, we encounter a situation in which both sides are right. Before I comment on this issue, Bloomberg explains the overall situation:
A federal judge has ordered Apple to assist the agency in getting access to Syed Rizwan Farook’s iPhone 5c, arguing that it probably contains information critical to the investigation. Apple calls this government overreach and is preparing for a fight.

On the surface, the court order is fairly straightforward. The Justice Department has a warrant to search the phone, and the data in question could be crucial: It could include messages, photographs and contacts that might show whether Farook was connected to a larger terrorist network or was planning further attacks.

But Farook’s phone has a security feature that automatically clears its data after 10 incorrect attempts at entering a password. The FBI wants Apple to create a customized version of its operating system to circumvent the security feature and allow its agents to try as many password combinations as it takes to gain access.

Apple Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook sees this request more ominously: The government, he wrote in a message posted on the company’s website, has “asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone.”

But this wouldn’t be a backdoor because it wouldn’t be built into Apple’s products -- a deliberate weakness that hackers might hope to exploit. It would be a technique for opening the phone over which Apple would retain sole control, subject to court order. In fact, the order says the software need never leave the company’s campus.
On one hand, those of us who believe that government has grown into an intrusive behemoth have legitimate concerns about providing the FBI or any government agency with the power to invade the privacy of smartphone users. After all, under the current administration, the IRS—a supposedly non-partisan government agency—was weaponized to attack Barack Obama's opponents. The media looked the other way as the administration lied and stonewalled about the scope, the origin and the intent of the IRS actions. A dangerous precedent was set (no one was prosecuted). Now the government is asking for the tools to invade every iPhone on the planet. There is cause for concern.

On the other hand, there is a legitimate need to investigate Islamic terrorist activity in the United States and worldwide—to understand the involvement (if any) of Mosques, Muslim organizations, and other radicalized Muslims. The information in Farook's iPhone could be valuable, could lead to other terrorist cells, and could, over the long term, save lives.

What to do?

Since it is acknowledged that Apple could make a one-off mod to its operating system that would allow access to Farook's data via automated generation of every password combination, it would seem reasonable to have Apple do the work without involvement by the FBI. Once the data is freed, Apple, would turn the data and the data only over to the FBI. Then, under court appointed oversight by a three senior judges and their selected non-government technical advisors, Apple would destroy the the one-off mods made to the OS. The three judge panel would ensure that all mods were destroyed in a manner that could not be reconstructed or hacked. This would satisfy the FBI's need for evidence in this case, but at the same time would safeguard privacy.

Both sides should stop posturing and get this done.