When the FBI began demanding that Apple create a way for government to hack into Syed Farook’s iPhone, something smelled fishy. Surely the massive, multibillion-dollar surveillance state can get into a cell phone, so why would they start this very public fight?
Apple had become vocal about protecting the privacy of its customers since the Snowden revelations clearly showed government’s all-out attack on constitutional rights. The FBI tried its hand at steering public opinion—preying on the fear of terrorism—so people would accept government-mandated backdoors to bypass encryption.
But their propaganda campaign appears to be failing miserably. This was highlighted on Monday when the government filed a motion to vacate a Tuesday hearing against Apple. In just the nick of time, a mysterious third-party showed the FBI how to unlock Farook’s iPhone.
“On Sunday, March 20, 2016, an outside party demonstrated to the FBI a possible method for unlocking Farook’s iPhone. Testing is required to determine whether it is a viable method that will not compromise data on Farook’s iPhone. If the method is viable, it should eliminate the need for the assistance from Apple Inc. (“Apple”) set forth in the All Writs Act Order in this case.”
As we reported in February, a secret “decision memo” was issued in November directing the surveillance apparatus to explore ways around the “backdoor” issue, and agencies already possess a deep understanding of tech companies’ encryption. Edward Snowden told John Hopkins University there already exist ways to hack an iPhone without Apple’s help, such as “infrared laser glitching” and “de-capping.”
As the news came out about government’s motion to vacate the hearing on account of its newfound hacker friend, researchers at Johns Hopkins announced that they discovered a way to decrypt photos and videos from the iPhone.
“Even Apple, with all their skills — and they have terrific cryptographers — wasn’t able to quite get this right,” said Green, whose team of graduate students published a paper describing the attack after Apple issued a patch. “So it scares me that we’re having this conversation about adding back doors to encryption when we can’t even get basic encryption right…
Green said that technologists such as those at the National Security Agency could easily have found the same flaw. “If you put resources into it, you will come across something like this,” he said.”
The motion to vacate Tuesday’s hearing does not mean the issue is resolved. The FBI will file a status report on April 5, 2016, which should tell us whether the government intends to pursue its crusade.
The discovery of a way to unlock Farook’s iPhone would give the FBI a reason to back down this time, but it’s hard to imagine government giving up completely. Coercing private companies that are protecting our last vestige of privacy would be a huge win for the surveillance state, and would signal their triumph over the Snowden effect.