FBI has a “possible method” for breaking iPhone encryption (but is that a good thing?)

by Matt Klassen on March 23, 2016

10_46-512x288A court hearing regarding Apple and the ongoing encryption debate scheduled for this week has been postponed, as the FBI reportedly may have found a way to break the encryption of the iPhone used by Rizwan Farook in the San Bernardino shootings.

Since this legal controversy between Apple and the FBI first broke several months ago, there were many in the security and technology industries who thought surely the Bureau must be able to break the encryption on its own, with their failure to do so adding additional concerns about the readiness of the cyber-tools currently employed by law enforcement. Now, it seems, the FBI has potentially found a way in using an “outside party,” which might mean a third party security company (perhaps McAfee, who volunteered its services several weeks ago) has come forward with a way to hack the phone while preserving the data.

Of course if the FBI can access the information on the phone then its ongoing battle with Apple is moot, as the court case regarding this particular incident will be irrelevant. But the battle over encryption won’t end there, because if the FBI does indeed gain access to the phone, it will be in Apple’s interest to find out what vulnerability was exploited, what access was found, and close it off tight, meaning instead of this potentially being the end of the encryption controversy, this may be just the beginning.

It was on Monday when the Department of Justice filed a motion to delay an impending hearing over the encryption of the iPhone in question, stating that “an outside party demonstrated to the FBI a possible method” for unlocking Farook’s phone.

Again, with no further details given, it is only speculation that the FBI was approached by McAfee or another security firm; where a potential hack was shown to reliably break the iPhone’s encryption while keeping the data intact.

For its part, Apple has always offered its assistance in helping to break the iPhone encryption with all known methods, some of which the FBI bungled all on their own, but the Cupertino company has steadfastly resisted the legal order to change its iOS to include backdoors for such an occasion, arguing that the existence of backdoors would impact the security of everyone and its existence would simply motivated hackers and other cyber-criminals to find it and exploit it.

The case itself was shaping up to be a landmark ruling, one that would likely have radically impacted mobile security and encryption standards from this point forward. The irony here, though, is that if the FBI finds a way into the phone, it may undercut its entire legal footing for compelling companies to provide backdoors into their encryption.

While this latest revelation makes the ongoing court case all but pointless, as I mentioned, this clearly isn’t the end of the encryption debate. That said, if it turns out that the FBI does indeed find a way to hack the iPhone in question, it clearly undermines the entire argument that kicked off this legal battle in the first place; that encryption standards were so tight that access was impossible. Next time, after Apple inevitably closes this loophole (if it exists), when the FBI comes calling again, will the courts be so willing to listen to such compelling appeals about the impossibility of breaking encryption when they did it before?

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Written by: Matt Klassen. www.digitcom.ca. Follow TheTelecomBlog.com by: RSS, Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube.

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