FBI shouldn’t ask Apple for a backdoor into iPhones

by Steve Blum • , ,

No problem making a front door.

The legal standoff between the FBI and Apple over a judge’s order to write and turnover a more hackable version of the iOS operating system raises a lot of questions about civil liberties and the U.S. government’s power to 1. dive into any data it wants and 2. force private companies and individuals to help. But it also poses a question about the technical abilities of U.S. investigators.

According to an open letter signed by Apple CEO Tim Cook and posted its website

The U.S. government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create. They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone.

Specifically, the FBI wants us to make a new version of the iPhone operating system, circumventing several important security features, and install it on an iPhone recovered during the [San Bernardino terrorism] investigation. In the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession.

However, according to an article in the Washington Post by Bruce Schneier, Apple’s help shouldn’t be necessary…

There’s nothing preventing the FBI from writing that hacked software itself, aside from budget and manpower issues. There’s every reason to believe, in fact, that such hacked software has been written by intelligence organizations around the world. Have the Chinese, for instance, written a hacked Apple operating system that records conversations and automatically forwards them to police?…We simply have no idea who already has this capability.

Arguably, a backdoor into encrypted iPhones would be safer in Apple’s hands, given the ongoing problems the U.S. government has keeping its own data secure. But it would be safer still if a backdoor was never built.