Screen shot via ABC News
In the week since a California federal court ordered Apple to help the FBI unlock the iPhone of San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook, the company has been mounting a full-scale offensive — politically, legally and technologically.
On Tuesday night, the New York Times reported that Apple engineers are working on new security features that would make it impossible for law enforcement agencies to access locked iPhones using brute-force attacks — a break-in method that is at the center of the current federal case facing the global tech company.
This effort, which reportedly began before the FBI sought its court order, would add yet another layer of security to an apparatus that law enforcement officials have already had difficulty penetrating. If Apple succeeds in implementing this technology, it could render the resolution of its current legal battle against the FBI moot for subsequent cases and, the Times wrote, “would most likely prompt a new cycle of court fights and, yet again, more technical fixes by Apple.”
The technology at stake in this case is a system that allows Apple to update an iPhone’s mobile operating system without using the customer’s access code. In the case of the San Bernardino phone, the FBI wants Apple to use that loophole to install a specially-made iOS that would defeat a key aspect of the iPhone’s security system: automatically erasing all its data after 10 failed attempts at entering a passcode.
According to Phillip Rogaway, a professor and cryptographer at the University of California at Davis, Apple’s decision is part of the reason it has found itself in a precarious legal situation.
“This vulnerability is something that Apple didn’t have to leave,” he told Yahoo News. “They could have designed an architecture in which they could say with a straight face to the FBI: ‘Sorry we can’t unlock this phone. We lack the technical capability.’ At present, Apple lacks the capability only in a very limited sense; they don’t have on hand a piece of software that they could easily write.”
The report that Apple was working to improve its security architecture came just as an interview about the court case aired between CEO Tim Cook and ABC’s David Muir. In the intimate half-hour conversation, Cook fiercely defended Apple’s decision to challenge the FBI, and emphasized his belief that Congress, not the courts, should make major security decisions such as these.
“For all of those people who want to have a voice but are afraid, we are standing up,” he told Muir from inside his office on the company’s flagship Cupertino campus. “If there is going to be a law, then it should be done out in the open, so their voices are heard through their representatives in Congress.”
Cook, who said he was blindsided by the court order, described the operating system that the FBI wants Apple to create as “the software equivalent of cancer,” and vowed to take the company’s legal battle to the Supreme Court, if necessary.
The Apple chief vowed to speak with President Obama about alternative solutions, including forming a commission of government officials, technology experts and civil liberties groups to discuss issues pertaining to digital privacy.
“The key is for all of the key people to come together and really think through these issues,” Cook said. “Not just look at one — look at all of them and recognize that at the core of this are some of the founding principles of our country, which we should take a huge pause to trample on.”