The technology industry has a long history of being run by antiauthoritarians who bark a lot but roll over as soon as Uncle Sam commands it. This has lead to a great deal of disappointment for me. Fortunately, after the Edward Snowden leaks, some technology companies have started developing a bit of a spine.
Yesterday a robed one in a court room commanded Apple to produce a custom firmware that would allow the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) to more easily brute force the passcode on a suspect’s iPhone:
On Tuesday, a federal judge in Riverside, California, ordered Apple to help the government unlock and decrypt the iPhone 5C used by Syed Rizwan Farook, who shot up an office party in a terrorist attack in nearby San Bernardino in December 2015.
Specifically, United States Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym mandated that Apple provide the FBI a custom firmware file, known as an IPSW file, that would likely enable investigators to brute force the passcode lockout currently on the phone, which is running iOS 9.
By issuing this order Judge Pym openly stated that he believes Apple is a slave to the federal government and therefore can be forced to perform labor against its will. This is the point where a lot of technology companies would simply roll over and accept their place. Apple has decided it doesn’t want to play ball:
The United States government has demanded that Apple take an unprecedented step which threatens the security of our customers. We oppose this order, which has implications far beyond the legal case at hand.
Rather than asking for legislative action through Congress, the FBI is proposing an unprecedented use of the All Writs Act of 1789 to justify an expansion of its authority.
The government would have us remove security features and add new capabilities to the operating system, allowing a passcode to be input electronically. This would make it easier to unlock an iPhone by “brute force,” trying thousands or millions of combinations with the speed of a modern computer.
The implications of the government’s demands are chilling. If the government can use the All Writs Act to make it easier to unlock your iPhone, it would have the power to reach into anyone’s device to capture their data. The government could extend this breach of privacy and demand that Apple build surveillance software to intercept your messages, access your health records or financial data, track your location, or even access your phone’s microphone or camera without your knowledge.
Opposing this order is not something we take lightly. We feel we must speak up in the face of what we see as an overreach by the U.S. government.
It will be interesting to see how far Apple can go in resisting this order but even if it does end up folding under the threat of government guns I want to give the company a hell of a lot of credit for this.
As Apple’s letter notes, this ruling as consequences far greater than this case alone. First, it would set a precedence that everybody is little more than a slave to the robed overlords of the courtrooms. Second, it would introduce an officially signed firmware that is purposely weakened to allow law enforcers to bypass built-in security mechanisms.
The first consequence isn’t anything new since the State has always viewed the people as slaves. But the second consequence is severe. I’m sure the FBI has pinky swore that it will never use this firmware again but anybody familiar with the agency’s history knows such a promise will be broken. And the state of the federal government’s network security means this custom firmware will almost certainly end up online at some point. Then it will be available to nongovernmental terrorists, domestic abusers, and other violent individuals with a vested interest in snooping on their targets.
Whether you like Apple or not, I believe the company deserves a lot of credit for this. I hope it inspires other companies to follow suit.