A Geek With Guns

Chronicling the depravities of the State.

When Idiots Write About Computer Security

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People trying to justify the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) demands of Apple are possibly the most amusing thing about the agency’s recent battle with Apple. Siding with the FBI requires either being completely ignorant of security or being so worshipful of the State that you believe any compromise made in the name empowering it is justified.

A friend of mine posted an article that tries to justify the FBI’s demands by claiming Apple is spreading fear, uncertainty, and disinformation (FUD). Ironically, the article is FUD. In fact it’s quite clear that the author has little to no understanding of security:

In its campaign, Apple is mustering all the fear, uncertainty and doubt it can. In an open letter to its customers, it states that “the government would have us write an entirely new operating system for their use. They are asking Apple to remove security features and add a new ability to the operating system to attack iPhone encryption, allowing a passcode to be input electronically. … It would be wrong to intentionally weaken our products with a government-ordered backdoor.” The FUD factor in that statement is “weaken our products.” It is grossly misleading, the plural suggesting that the FBI wants Apple to make this back door a standard part of iPhones. That’s flat-out false. What the government has asked is that Apple modify software to remove a feature that was not present in earlier versions of the software, and then install that new software on the single phone used by the terrorist. Apple can then destroy the software.

Apple’s statement is entirely accurate. The FBI is demanding a signed version of iOS that removes security features and includes a mechanism to brute force the password used to encrypt the contents of the device. Because the firmware would be signed it could be loaded onto other iPhones. We also know the FBI has about a dozen more phones it wants Apple to unlock so this case isn’t about a single phone. This case is about setting a precedence that will make it easier for the State to coerce companies into bypassing the security features of their own products.

The claim that Apple can destroy the software is also naive. In order to unlock the device the software must be loaded onto the phone. Since the phone is evidence it must be returned to the FBI. That means the FBI will have a signed copy of the custom firmware sitting on the phone and the phone will be unlocked so it would be feasible for the FBI to extract the firmware. Furthermore, the process involved in writing software for a court case will likely involve several third parties receiving access to the firmware:

Once the tool is ready, it must be tested and validated by a third party. In this case, it would be NIST/NIJ (which is where my own tools were validated). NIST has a mobile forensics testing and validation process by which Apple would need to provide a copy of the tool (which would have to work on all of their test devices) for NIST to verify.

[…]

During trial, the court will want to see what kind of scientific peer review the tool has had; if it is not validated by NIST or some other third party, or has no acceptance in the scientific community, the tool and any evidence gathered by it could be rejected.

[…]

If evidence from a device ever leads to a case in a court room, the defense attorney will (and should) request a copy of the tool to have independent third party verification performed, at which point the software will need to be made to work on another set of test devices. Apple will need to work with defense experts to instruct them on how to use the tool to provide predictable and consistent results.

It will likely be impossible for Apple to maintain exclusive control over the firmware.

Once the genie is out of the bottle it can’t be put back in. This is especially true with software since it can be reproduced almost infinitely for costs so small they’re practically free. If Apple produces this firmware it will not be able to make it not exist afterward. Let’s continue with the article in question:

More contradictory to Apple’s claims is that the FBI has specifically stated that it does not intend to cause a weakening of the consumer product, so this case cannot be used as a precedent. Should the government at any time attempt to do that so that back doors to be embedded in products, its own words would be the most compelling argument to counter that.

The FBI claims a lot of things. That doesn’t make those claims true. By merely existing this firmware would make consumer products less secure. Currently the iPhone’s security is quite strong as noted by the fact that the FBI has been unable to break into about a dozen phones in its possession. If Apple releases a firmware that can bypass security features on iPhones it necessarily means the overall security of iPhones, which are consumer products, is weakened. There is no way to logically argue otherwise. When something that couldn’t be broken into can be broken into it is less secure than it was. The fact that I felt the need to write the previous sentence causes me great pain because it speaks so ill of the education of the author.

The FUD continues, with Apple saying, “Law enforcement agents around the country have already said they have hundreds of iPhones they want Apple to unlock if the FBI wins this case.” That might very well be the case. But it has zero relevance. Each of those cases could be resolved only with a court order of its own, regardless of what happens with the San Bernardino iPhone. Even if this case were not in front of the court at the moment, any state, local or federal law enforcement agency could bring a similar case forward.

Actually, it’s entirely relevant. The FBI wants the court precedence so prosecutors in other cases can compel companies to bypass security features on their products. Apple isn’t simply fighting the creation of a purposely broken firmware, it’s fighting a precedence that would allow other courts to coerce companies into performing labor against their will. Obviously the author’s understanding of the legal system, specifically how precedence works, is as lacking as his understanding of security.

Gaining access to locked data is a legitimate law enforcement issue, and whatever your personal beliefs, all law enforcement officers have a responsibility to attempt to collect all information that is legally possible to collect.

While law enforcers may have a responsibility to attempt to collect all information within their power to collect that doesn’t mean they should be able to compel others to assist them at the point of a gun.

In other forums, Apple has been claiming that if the U.S. requires Apple to cooperate in providing access to the phone, all other governments around the world will then expect the same sort of cooperation. It is a bogus claim — more FUD. Do Apple’s lawyers really not know that the law of one country does not apply to another? Apple’s winning its case in the U.S. would do nothing to stop another country from initiating a similar action. Its losing its case should have no influence on whether other countries decide to pursue such matters.

I see the author doesn’t pay attention to world events. Oftentimes when a government sees another government get away with something nasty it decides it can also get away with it. Take Blackberry, for example. India demanded that Blackberry give it access to a backdoor and Blackberry complied. Seeing India getting what it wanted the government of Pakistan demanded the same. Monkey see, monkey do. It should be noted that Blackberry actually left Pakistan but it was obviously for reasons other than the backdoor demands.

Apple knows that if it rolls over it will encourage other governments to demand the same as the FBI. If, however, it digs its heels in it knows that it will discourage other governments from demanding the same. This is the same principle as not negotiating with terrorists. If you give in once it will encourage others to pull the same shit against you.

But of all of Apple’s arguments, the one that is most ludicrous, or perhaps the most damning of its much-touted security prowess, is revealed in this response to the government’s request for a key that could unlock one phone:

“Of course, Apple would do our best to protect that key, but in a world where all of our data is under constant threat, it would be relentlessly attacked by hackers and cybercriminals. As recent attacks on the IRS systems and countless other data breaches have shown, no one is immune to cyberattacks.”

First, Apple is already relentlessly attacked by hackers and criminals. I would like to hope that Apple has better security practices than the IRS. But when you unpack this statement, you are left with the impression that we should not trust any of Apple’s software or products. You have to assume that, should Apple write the software that the FBI wants, it would be among the most protected software in the company. If Apple is concerned about this software being compromised, what does that say about all of its other software?

This is another claim that can only be made by somebody who doesn’t understand security. This firmware wouldn’t be entirely in Apple’s hands. As noted above, the FBI would possess a phone with the firmware installed on it. And anybody who has paid attention to the various congressional hearings on the numerous federal network breaches knows the federal government’s network is incapable of protecting anything of value.

This firmware isn’t like a private key, which can serve its purpose even if you keep it within your exclusive control. It’s a piece of software that must be loaded onto a device that is evidence in a crime, which necessarily means it must leave your exclusive control. So Apple’s security isn’t the only cause for concern here.

Even assuming that a bad guy gets hold of just the software that law enforcement wants created, it would have to be signed by Apple’s security certificate to load on any phone.

Which the copy on the phone and any copies sent out for independent testing would be.

If the criminal gets a copy of the software and it has already been signed with the certificate, Apple could revoke the certificate.

If the author read the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s (EFF) excellent technical overview of this case he would know that the public key is built into the hardware of the iPhone. This is actually a smart security practice because it prevents malware from replacing the public key. If the public key was replaced it would allow malware to load its own code. The downside to this is that Apple can’t revoke the public key to prevent software signed with the corresponding private key from loading.

But if a bad guy gets hold of Apple’s digital certificate, then the whole Apple software base is at risk, and this feature that the FBI wants bypassed is irrelevant. After all, Apple has stated that it is not immune from attack, and it has implied it is a reasonable concern that its most protected software can be compromised.

I’m going to take this opportunity to write about a specific feature of public key cryptography that is relevant here. Public key cryptography relies on two keys: a private key and a public key. The private key, as the name implies, can be kept private. Anything signed with the private key can be verified by the public key. Because of this you only need to hand out the public key.

I have a Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) key that I use to encrypt and sign e-mails. Anybody with my public key can validate my signature but they cannot sign an e-mail as me. If, however, they had my private key they could sign e-mails as me. Because of this I keep my private key very secure. Apple likely keeps its software signing key in a vault on storage media that is only ever connected to a secure computer that has no network connectivity. Under such circumstances an attacker with access to Apple’s network would still be unable to access the company’s software signing key. For reasons I stated earlier, that’s not a model Apple can follow with the firmware the FBI is demanding. Apple’s security concerns in this case are entirely unrelated to the security practices of its private key.

In addition to his technical incompetence, the author decided to display his argumentative incompetence by closing his article with a pretty pathetic ad hominid:

But Apple, seeming to take a page from Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, is using the situation to promote its brand with free advertising.

If all else fails in your argument just compare your opponent to Trump.

Written by Christopher Burg

February 26th, 2016 at 11:00 am