Why Apple is right to fight FBI over iPhone access

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Columnist Rob Enderle is not an Apple fan, however, he backs Tim Cook’s efforts to prevent the FBI from creating a security key that could access all iPhones. Here’s why such a key could potentially do billions of dollars of damage.

I’m not exactly known as a huge fan of Apple. In fact, for nearly a decade and half I’ve refused to use their products and I’m supposedly banned for life from Apple’s properties. It’s definitely personal between me and that company, so for me to come to Apple’s defense takes some kind of cataclysmic event.

The fight between Apple and the FBI absolutely qualifies as such an event for me. Regardless of how you feel about Tim Cook and Apple, you should be behind Cook’s efforts to prevent the FBI from forcing the creation of what could effectively be a Master Key into all iPhones. Not only that, it could become the legal foundation to create a similar key for all U.S.-based technology.  

[ Related: FBI's request to Apple will affect civil rights for a generation ]

While this would be great for overseas competitors, it really isn’t a good thing for us.  

Let me explain.

The government’s simple request

The request seems simple, all the government is asking for is a tool that will allow someone to disable the feature that wipes an iPhone after a certain number of login attempts (generally about 11).   There are around 10,000 combinations in a 4-pin security code and with technology you can hit that code on average after about 4,000 tries.   And, with technology, you can automate this process and likely break into any phone within a few hours.  

[ Related: Apple's fight with the FBI could go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court ]

Right now this technology doesn’t exist and there is almost no way to create it unless you had access to the source code of the iPhone and had some way to update the phone centrally without the user’s involvement. This means that it is likely only Apple could create what is effectively a master key to all iPhones. The problem is the “all” part.

Once this key is created it can be used on any iPhone owned by anyone (note that even the President’s kids have iPhones). Given the level of publicity there is virtually no way to even attempt to seriously keep the creation of this key confidential.  

That key could be used to open any iPhone owned by any government official, including the U.S. President or any FBI agent that used one, any CEO or any employee who used one, any child or parent, or any police officer who had an iPhone. The black market value of such a key would be astronomical. Could you imagine what China or Russia might pay for this key alone let alone any criminal organization?

There would simply be no way to keep this method secured for any significant period of time. Think of this in terms of liability because these folks all want to do us harm in some way. The potential damage against all iPhone users could easily reach into the high billions. So, how can the need to hack one phone justify such a massive exposure?  

Value

We know the owner of the phone in question and his wife destroyed their personal phones, yet left the iPhone untouched suggesting there is nothing of value on it. The attempt to break into this phone has been well-publicized so anyone who might have been contacted by it is likely long gone by now and any information tied to another terrorist so out of date to be virtually worthless. So, to net this out, the probability that there is something of value on the phone is remote, and the probability that anything that had value has now lost its value is almost certain. At best, the value of the data on the phone is negligible.

[ Related: Apple wants court to rule if it can be forced to unlock an iPhone ]

Essentially, the FBI wants Apple to create a key with a potential to do billions of dollars of damage to get access to information that likely won’t have any value at all. This seems like the opposite of a prudent decision and beyond negligent for an organization missioned to keep people safe.  

It would seem then that this entire effort is likely a Red Herring. The FBI wants Apple to create the method and once created they can then use this method to gain access to iPhones for any reason. Ironically, once in place this method will likely make it impossible for any iPhone to get government use approval.  

The definition of ‘wackadoodle’

Clearly if anyone can bypass iPhone security it is Apple. But it isn’t in our best interest, nor the best interest of the government, which uses a lot of iPhones to make this happen. Because once iPhone security is bypassed, we are all exposed. I’ve seen arguments suggesting that this method already exists and that the FBI already has access to the phones and that this is all a smokescreen to get terrorists to use iPhones. However, terrorists in general don’t have a ton of money and tend to buy far cheaper devices. Of course, the attempts to break the iPhone should drive them away from the platform regardless.  

So, in the end, I see this as a government effort to fix a relatively small problem by creating a massive international exposure and putting Apple’s revenue at risk. That’s my definition for “wackadoodle.”

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