The FBI and the iPhone in Your Pocket

The FBI and the iPhone in Your Pocket.

Jules Polonetsky

Consider the data on your iPhone for a moment.  Emails, pictures, passwords, credit cards, location history, contacts and more.  Imagine your phone unlocked in the hands of a criminal who snatched it, or someone who wanted to embarrass you who peeked at it, or a hacker who remotely accessed it.

Today, if you have a good password protecting your phone, none of this is easy to do.  Encryption ensures that without a password, your data is locked up, even if your phone was taken apart or attacked while it was booting up.  Rate limiting ensures that it isn’t possible to brute force attack the phone by entering thousands of passwords.  A small delay required in between password attempts ensures thousands of attempts will take a very long time.  And another security feature, if enabled, will delete all the data on an iPhone, after 10 failed password attempts.  With iCloud Activation, as a deterrent for thieves, if the iPhone is remotely wiped and locked then the original owner’s username and password are required to reactivate the phone for use with a wireless carrier. Without these credentials the iPhone remains encrypted and locked preventing anyone from using it.  The iPhone is so secure, that even Apple has no way to get in to the phone, even if you bring it in to visit a Genius at a local Apple store or if you sent the phone back to Apple headquarters.

These protections ensure that your phone is not an easy target for thieves, anymore. iPhone thefts have plummeted by as much as 50% in some cities, after these features were introduced.

Unfortunately, the FBI now wants to put the safety of all iPhone users at risk.  The FBI wants access to the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino killers.  Phones used by the killers were destroyed, but a phone reportedly provided by an employer is in the hands of the FBI, but locked.  The FBI has the iPhone back ups stored with Apple, until late October, but hasn’t been able to break into the iPhone to determine if there any clues stored on the device.  The FBI wants Apple to devise a method of breaking in to iPhones that can be used here.

But – if Apple does so, this method will be used by others.  Once Apple creates a bypass, the methodology will be analyzed, studied and exploited by sophisticated criminals at first, and then by others. There may or may not be any useful clues on the iPhone of the San Bernardino killers, but it is for certain that many criminals in the future will find data they want on the iPhones of consumers, if an exploit is created to bypass passwords, encryption and other protections.

Of course, there are many other negative implications, if iPhone security is circumvented.  Repressive governments will seek to force Apple to unlock  iPhones, investigating and persecuting those who oppose them.   As Future of Privacy Forum Senior Fellow Peter Swire explained, “I wish there was some magic way to break security for exactly one phone, without breaking security for millions of smartphones. There isn’t.”  Former White House Deputy CTO put it clearly, noting that once those back doors are there for the FBI, “all of our private communications become much more vulnerable to attack by malicious criminals and terrorists.”

The FBI needs every tool it can get to investigate terror attacks and prevent them in advance.  But forcing Apple to create a tool that risks the security and privacy of every iPhone in the world is asking for a tool that will cause more harm than it prevents.

Jules Polonetsky is Executive Director of the Future of Privacy Forum.