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Apple and the iPolice

By Rachel Gutish
5 Mar 2016

A few months ago, the San Bernardino Shooting, the deadliest terror attack on American soil since 9/11, took place when Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik burst into an office party at Farook’s job, armed with semi-automatic weapons and dressed in black ski masks and tactical gear. Sixty-five to seventy bullets ripped through the crowd, seriously injuring 22 civilians and leaving 14 dead. Before being killed in a shootout with the police, the couple posted a message to Facebook pledging allegiance to the Islamic State. In the suspects’ destroyed car, investigators found an iPhone belonging to Farook. The battle between the FBI and Apple over the decryption of this device has brought this incident back into the news.

Of course, this phone was encrypted and has a password – one that none of the FBI agents has been able to crack, largely due to the “permanently inaccessible” feature installed on the phone. In this feature, there are two passwords – a secret password and one that you enter in the phone. The two passwords add up to the correct number to unlock the phone. After ten failed log-in attempts, the phone automatically deletes the secret password, making it impossible to access the data within. On previous operating systems, Apple could bypass the code and unlock the phone. On the current system, however, even Apple can’t access the encrypted data without the user password. However, there is a loophole: Apple can upload updated software to a device without requiring the user to approve it.

This is exactly what the FBI is asking. They want Apple to develop weak encryption software for the phone – one that will remove the permanently inaccessible feature allowing the FBI to run a brute-force attack on the user password. A computer would try millions of passwords in every possible combination at a rapid rate until the correct one is found. Apple would retain possession of the software and would have the ability to install it on any phone when presented with a warrant demanding that the phone be unlocked.

Apple CEO Tim Cook was outraged and sent a letter to customers warning them of the impending showdown and declaring Apple’s determination to fight for users privacy. In addition to arguing that the bypass could put user data at risk, Cook also expressed concern about the precedent the move would set. Meanwhile, senior FBI officials have stressed the need to access the phone in order to track down any co-conspirators and keep the American public safe from terror attacks like the San Bernardino massacre.

Having technology like this  available for investigations could be a game-changer for fighting crime and terror, protecting the public, and saving lives. At the same time, the idea of government bureaucrats prying through your phone, not to mention the havoc that could ensue if this technology “escaped” Apple and made its way into the hands of cybercriminals, fills many with fear. This saga seems to be a continuation of the same argument that we’ve had since the start of modern technology’s relentless creep into our lives: where should personal privacy end and the public good begin?

Rachel Gutish worked as a staff writer for the Prindle Post from 2015-2017. At DePauw, she was a member of the DePauw track team (pole vault, javelin), and a professional motorcycle racer / X Games medalist from Terre Haute, Indiana.
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