NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden called out the FBI’s contentious attempt to force Apple into writing code to unlock the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone as a sham.
“The FBI says Apple has the ‘exclusive technical means’” to, essentially, break into the phone,” Snowden said during Common Cause’s Blueprint for Democracy conference on Tuesday. “Respectfully, that’s bullshit.”
Snowden expanded on his statement on Twitter, saying, “The global technological consensus is against the FBI.” He also referenced a blog post by ACLU technology fellow, Daniel Kahn Gillmor, which calls the FBI’s claim that Apple, alone, must disable the iPhone’s “auto-erase” function, “fraudulent.”
“The truth is that even if this feature is enabled on the device in question,” Gillmor’s post explained, “the FBI doesn’t need to worry about it, because they can already bypass it by backing up part of the phone (called the ‘Effaceable Storage’) before attempting to guess the passcode […]
“[The FBI is] asking the public to grant them significant new powers that could put all of our communications infrastructure at risk, and to trust them to not misuse those powers. But they’re deliberately misleading the public (and the judiciary) to try to gain these powers.”
Gillmor, as well as a number of other technologists, have explained the information backed up on the iCloud would have been easily accessible had agents not reset the password in the early stages of the investigation.
As The Intercept pointed out, security researchers say other options do exist, such as “de-capping” the “phone’s memory chip to access it outside the phone (which Snowden has also mentioned), or resetting the phone’s internal counter” for an unlimited number of password attempts. Though difficult and costly, such methods have been used with success in the past.
Also noteworthy are the methods employed by the FBI and NSA, like Snowden, himself, famously revealed in 2013 — which would seem to indicate at least one of the agencies might already have the information ostensibly sought in the current case.
The NSA has been oddly and markedly absent from the ongoing controversy over the shooter’s iPhone. Though it is possible the secretive agency failed in an attempt to access the phone’s information, it’s highly doubtful. The Intercept noted the NSA’s silence could be due to a more ominous purposeful exclusion, “so the FBI could create a test case.”
One thing seems virtually indisputable in the FBI-Apple dispute — the agency is not being truthful or forthcoming about its true motives. As Gillmor warned,
“This is not how a trustworthy agency operates. We should not be fooled.”