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Apple: an iPhone Backdoor Would Be Reused by China, Russia, and the US

Apple says it's being asked by the FBI to create and maintain a parallel, insecure version of iOS that could be used over and over.
February 19, 2016, 5:00am

Apple has ratcheted up its rhetoric in its ongoing battle with the FBI over the fate of an encrypted iPhone belonging to one of the terrorists involved in the San Bernardino mass shooting. In a conference call with reporters Friday, a senior Apple official said that if it's required to help the government hack into the phone, countries like Russia and China will soon demand similar capabilities.

In this case, the FBI is asking Apple to write a piece of software that would remove two features: One that makes data completely inaccessible should the unlock passcode be entered incorrectly 10 times in a row, and one that removes a time delay in between each successive incorrect guess. The FBI wants to then "brute force" its way into the phone, by trying every possible combination of passcodes.


Under the terms of the call, reporters are not allowed to directly quote or identify the official but could paraphrase his statements.

The official said that the FBI assertion that this is a one-time-request is naive, that Apple is being asked to create a software tool that the US and other governments will then call on Apple to use in a litany of future cases.

This possibility is, of course, the major fear: "It should be completely possible to apply this attack even on the newer phones," Ryan Stortz, a senior security researcher at Trail of Bits, told Motherboard Thursday. "Apple will still be creating a solution for the FBI that can be trivially re-used … It'd be pretty generically applicable in the future."

The Apple official said that the company believes it'll be asked to essentially maintain two parallel operating systems: The normal version of iOS, and one without the 10-try limit and the time delay. The executive said this precedent could mean Apple will be asked to load the hacked version of the operating system onto customers' phones at the whim of governments in the United States, China, Russia, and elsewhere.

The official said the FBI was unprecedented and that the US is the first country that has asked for such a solution. If Apple gives in to the US government, he said it risks its sovereignty, and that other governments will soon take notice and make similar requests.

Even if Apple ultimately loses this argument (and it's not clear that'll happen—Apple has several very compelling potential legal defenses, including one based on the First Amendment), experts believe that the US government's strategy will ultimately backfire. The Apple official said that the company's security technology is always evolving and that in the future, and that it will continue to make security a priority.

A hardware-based solution to Apple's current legal conundrum is a strategy Nate Cardozo, a staff lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told me Apple would likely try.

"If I were Apple, I would be doing everything in my power to ensure that compliance with one of these orders on the iPhone 7 were completely impossible," Cardozo said. "If I'm Apple, I'm designing the iPhone 7 so that none of these techniques would work against it."