On Feb. 17, electronics company Apple Inc. released a statement stating that the company may begin creating a program for the iPhone which is able to unlock any Apple phone. This backdoor program is being requested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, (FBI) in light of recent terrorist attacks, specifically the San Bernardino shooting.
Apple stated in their customer letter online that they released this “for public discussion” and for “people around the country to understand what is at stake.”
The main fear in creating and releasing this backdoor is that although the FBI believes that the program will be used once only for the iPhone, it is still subject to being stolen or hacked. This program, if possessed, could open any iPhone, compromising the security of all Apple phone users. Hackers belong to a strong and growing community that has been able to compromise the Islam State in Syria (ISIS) and electronics company Sony among others.
The FBI is stating the All Writs Act of 1789 in this case, in support of creating the program though Apple is resisting and most likely looking for public support through this letter. The Act states that it may issue “all writs necessary or appropriate in aid of their respective jurisdictions and agreeable to the usages and principles of law.” This means that the judge can order someone to follow the law, but it has to be done in an agreeable way. According to the New York Times, Apple does not want to give up this right whether they are made to or not. Apple is trying to make an unhackable security system that “experts say [Apple] almost surely will” succeed in doing.
After the original customer letter was published, news surfaced that the iCloud account on the phone had had its password changed remotely. At first it was thought that the password was changed by local officials, but this was denied and recently reinforced by an FBI release that it was done under supervision of federal officials. This is especially important because the FBI originally denied providing supervision for the action.
Although Apple would not create a backdoor program, they would help in backing up the shooter’s iCloud data. If the password was not changed, the government could have taken the phone to a previously connected WiFi area and had the phone automatically back up its data.
The phone in question is under government supervision because the owner worked for the San Bernardino Department of Health, giving them ownership of the phone. The phone is an iPhone 5c which has no fingerprint scanner, something that could have unlocked the phone with the deceased owner’s fingerprints and avoided this controversy.
This program, if created, would be the first ordered by the government to a company in disarming their encryption. It seems quite likely that this case may reach the Supreme Court through appeals that will have large impacts for all U.S. software companies. If the case is upheld, Apple believes that this program may take thousands of hours to even complete and unlock the phone.