ACLU Uncovers History of Legal Attempts to Break iPhone Encryption

by Matt Klassen on April 7, 2016

Encryption-800x420-800x420-800x420The FBI long insisted that its use of the All Writs Act of 1789 to compel Apple to provide ways to circumvent the iPhone encryption at the heart of the San Bernardino shootings was just about that one case. In fact, the FBI went to great lengths to assure the general public that this wasn’t about iPhone security in general, but about accessing the important information on just one iPhone, all but promising that the rest would remain secure. According to legal documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union, such assurances couldn’t be further from the truth.

In an effort to determine the veracity of the FBI’s claims regarding the individualized nature of its encryption access request and in an effort to better shed light on the debate between national security and personal privacy, the ACLU filed a motion to unseal all recent lawsuits that employed the All Writs Act to compel tech companies to assist in accessing data on encrypted mobile devices.

What they found was that the San Bernardino case was not special in any way in this regard, and the FBI has used this tactic dozens of times before.

“The FBI wants you to think that it will use the All Writs Act only in extraordinary cases to force tech companies to assist in the unlocking of phones. Turns out, these kinds of orders have actually become quite ordinary,” the ACLU said in the blog.

In fact, the ACLU uncovered 63 confirmed cases and 13 other cases “in which the government applied for an order under the All Writs Act to compel Apple or Google to provide assistance in accessing data stored on a mobile device.” This means that the manoeuvre the FBI attempted to use in the San Bernardino case was not a one-off, but in fact its evolving modus operandi. The only difference is that the FBI took the San Bernardino case public; arguing that there were no other means to access the information on the iPhone other than to have Apple change the nature of its iOS operating system.

Of course things got significantly more complicated for the FBI when this ongoing encryption debate went public, because in short order the Bureau actually disproved its own argument, that Apple’s participation was necessary for accessing the data, when it employed third-party help to hack the device.

And therein lies yet another wrinkle, the fact that the FBI has found a way to access the information it needs, which has now seen state and local authorities lining up to get help in accessing the countless iPhones that they need to un-encrypt in whatever various investigations of varying importance they have underway.

But things don’t stop there, as now the public is very interested in knowing what was on the device, getting an answer to whether or not this entire drama was worth it. While such information would undoubtedly go a long way to help sway public opinion one way or another, the unfortunate answer is that such answers will likely never be offered, most likely because the information stored on the phone, the information the FBI fought so hard to access, is benign and pointless.

So we are left with a situation where the FBI has claimed that it needed help only this once to get access to an encrypted phone it couldn’t hack; two points that polarized the public debate on this issue, and two points that turned out to be manifestly untrue.

Now don’t get me wrong, I remain concerned about the national security implications of increased encryption, but the more I find out about the deviously opaque nature of the inner workings of the NSA and FBI when it comes to issues like these, the more I think increasing encryption is really the only way to go.

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

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