Apple vs. FBI: ‘Just this once’?

Julian Sanchez writes: Loudly as the Justice Department protests that this dispute is simply about one particular phone, that’s fairly clearly not the case. Forget other even more dangerous ways Apple could be compelled to use their private key and let’s stay focused on breaking iPhones for the moment. The Manhattan DA’s office alone has at least 175 iPhones that they’d like Apple to help them break into, and DOJ itself has 12 other ongoing lawsuits seeking access to iPhones. Realistically, if Apple loses here — and especially if they lose at the appellate level, which is where this is likely going given Apple’s decision to hire superstar lawyer Ted Olson for the case — they’re going to be fielding thousands of similar demands every year. As a practical matter, they’re going to need a dedicated team dedicated to developing, debugging, testing, customizing, and deploying the code used to brute force passcodes.

Now, when it comes to the Holy Grail of Apple’s security infrastructure — the private key — it’s almost certainly stored in secure vaults, on a Hardware Security Module that makes it difficult or impossible to copy the key itself off that dedicated hardware, and likely protected by elaborate procedures that have to be followed to authenticate major new software releases. If your adversaries realistically include, say, the Chinese and Russian intelligence services — and for Apple, you’d better believe it — it’s a serious enough security problem to guard against exfiltration or use of that Holy Grail private key. Doing the same for a continuously updated and deployed hacking tool is likely to be hugely more difficult. As the company explains:

Apple would do our best to protect that key, but in a world where all of our data is under constant threat, it would be relentlessly attacked by hackers and cybercriminals. As recent attacks on the IRS systems and countless other data breaches have shown, no one is immune to cyberattacks.

The Justice Department might not intend to “set a master key loose on the land” — but the predictable consequence of mandating compliance with requests of this type will be to significantly increase the chance of exactly that occurring. And that’s an increased risk that every individual or enterprise customer relying on iOS devices to secure critical data will need to take into account. [Continue reading…]

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