Apple iPhone Unlocking Saga

You may have read in the news recently that Apple have been in dispute with the FBI in the States over an order to unlock an iPhone belonging to a deceased gunman called Syed Rizwan Farook. Along with his wife, Farook was responsible for the death of 14 individuals in San Bernadino, California in December 2014. Police shot and killed them both at the time of the terror attack.

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Members of some of the victim’s families have backed the FBI in their order to Apple, but Apple have refused on the grounds that weakening the security of any of their products could not be ordered, even by the FBI. The FBI has now raised a court order to force Apple to comply with the unlocking request, and the case has gone to court. Many other high tech firms have since weighed in on Apple’s side, including some massive names such as Twitter, Google, Amazon, eBay, Reddit and AirBnB.

What’s the problem?

At the end of last year, Apple’s iOS release included default encryption of all data held on Apple devices, so in other words, call data, texts and images cannot be viewed without inputting the correct passcode for the device. Anyone trying to access the information has 10 attempts at getting the passcode right before the device decides it is being attacked and erases all of the data. The data itself is not even viewable by Apple without the passcode.

What do the FBI want?

The FBI have Farook’s iPhone, but they don’t have the passcode, so they have asked Apple to alter the iPhone to allow them to access the data held on it. They have asked Apple to allow two approaches to getting round the encryption. The first is to change things so that they can have an unlimited number of attempts at guessing the passcode, and the second is to somehow automate the attempts so that no-one has to sit typing each potential passcode in by hand.

Apple has declined to co-operate with either approach on the grounds that allowing this to happen for one iPhone means that government agencies worldwide would have access to data on any Apple device. This, they argue would be seen as a breach of trust by their customers. A group of 17 online high tech companies are formally backing Apple in their stand against the FBI court order, and they are supported by many other big names who have also filed briefs.

The case for and against

The cases both for and against allowing access are strong. People are naturally sympathetic to the wishes of family and friends of victims of a terror attack, and no law-abiding citizen wants to be seen to be supporting terrorist activity. However, data security is one of the fundamental positives that attract people to Apple devices. The thought of giving the FBI a back door into that data certainly makes me feel uneasy, even though (as far as I know) I have nothing to hide. I imagine there will be a great many people with secrets to keep who will be closely watching as this situation develops.

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