FBI accesses terrorist iPhone, DOJ case against Apple dropped, state of encryption more tenuous than ever

by Matt Klassen on March 30, 2016

fbiappleThe months-long legal standoff between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Apple is over, as the Bureau announced it has accessed the iPhone of San Bernardino terror suspect Syed Farook without the help of the Cupertino tech giant. In response, the Department of Justice has dropped the lawsuit against Apple aimed at compelling the company to design a backdoor into a custom-made version of iOS.

More than forcing a company to go above and beyond to help the FBI access information deemed vital in an ongoing terrorism investigation, the legal challenge raised serious questions about the legality of mobile encryption, particularly as it relates to the weighty issues of personal privacy and national security.

While we don’t know how the FBI got access to the phone, the information they were able to access, or if that information will be helpful in any way in deterring potential terror attacks in the future, one thing is abundantly clear: While the DOJ may have dropped the case against Apple, the case against encryption has been only momentarily stayed, that is until the next phone with important information needs to be cracked.

“From the beginning, we objected to the FBI’s demand that Apple build a backdoor into the iPhone because we believed it was wrong and would set a dangerous precedent,” Apple said in a Monday night statement. “This case should never have been brought.”

It was speculated last week that the FBI had enlisted the help of Israeli firm Cellebrite, a mobile software forensics company, but those rumours have since been said to be “inaccurate.” All we do know is that the FBI received help from a third-party who claimed to be able to break the iPhone passcode while avoiding the auto-erase function that wipes the phone’s data after 10 failed attempts to enter the correct code.

If indeed there was a loophole or some other iOS vulnerability that was exploited here to gain entry into the encrypted phone, it would not only be of interest to Apple, but to the entire intelligence community. In fact, it’s said that the NSA stockpiles such vulnerabilities to be used against high value targets, so perhaps the FBI received help from the security agency or perhaps there’s a new technique that’s been discovered. It’s really impossible to say. But as I said, Apple will be interested to know exactly how the data was accessed, this time so it can close the loophole and better secure the data of its millions of users worldwide

As this saga comes to a close I will say again that it seems strange to me that the FBI would push so hard towards legally compelling Apple to change the parameters of its iOS operating system to assist in this case then to actually explore the possibilities available to access the information in other ways. In fact, both the FBI and the DOJ went as far as to say that all possibilities had been exhausted, yet in the following weeks we heard several security firms claim they could help.

This has led me to believe that this ongoing row between the FBI and Apple had little to do with the iPhone of Syed Farook, and instead had a great deal to do with establishing a precedent regarding encryption. It’s no secret the FBI has been frustrated by the growing level of security, particularly on iPhones (more about that later this week), and perhaps it saw this as a way to get the backdoor it has long desired.

But again, all that is moot, as access has been gained and Apple is off the hook, at least until next time…and there will be a next time.

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

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