October 20, 2020

The FBI Can Get Into The Latest IPhones, So Why Is It Asking Apple To Break Encryption On Older Models?

The FBI has asked Apple to break the encryption on devices owned by the Pensacola Naval Base shooter. It hasn’t made this request officially — there’s no court order being sought to compel Apple’s assistance — but it’s asking nonetheless.

Attorney General Bill Barr put a little more muscle behind the FBI’s informal request. His statement insinuated that Apple was making the country less safe by refusing to break encryption. He also stated that time was of the essence in cases like this and Apple’s general unhelpfulness wasn’t acceptable.

Apple fired back by again stating it would not break phone encryption for the US government. It also pointed out the FBI did not inform of it a second locked device until a month after the shooting. If the government was concerned about time slipping away, it did not act with alacrity during this latest investigation.

Donald Trump followed Bill Barr’s lead, attacking Apple via Twitter with a particularly stupid tweet that suggests the president is still all about quid pro quo.

We are helping Apple all of the time on TRADE and so many other issues, and yet they refuse to unlock phones used by killers, drug dealers and other violent criminal elements. They will have to step up to the plate and help our great Country, NOW! MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 14, 2020

The administration is trying to turn public opinion against Apple. This will make it easier to push anti-encryption laws and policies. But the FBI doesn’t seem to need Apple to break encryption for it. It has options it’s apparently decided not to use in this case.

As we’ve noted earlier, a handful of tech companies offer devices that break or bypass encryption to pull data and communications from locked phones. Yes, it’s still an arms race, with companies like Apple patching the flaws these tools exploit, but there’s plenty of money to be made cracking open devices for government agencies.

The FBI isn’t interested in these tools, except when it’s convenient for the agency. Legal precedent compelling phone manufacturers to break encryption is infinitely more useful to the FBI. So, it chooses to ignore these options when it thinks it has a compelling case for encryption backdoors. That’s what appears to be happening here.

Thomas Brewster of Forbes says the FBI has used third-party hacking tools to access the contents of Apple’s latest iPhone.

Last year, FBI investigators in Ohio used a hacking device called a GrayKey to draw data from the latest Apple model, the iPhone 11 Pro Max. The phone belonged to Baris Ali Koch, who was accused of helping his convicted brother flee the country by providing him with his own ID documents and lying to the police.

If the FBI can get into the newest devices, why does it need Apple to break encryption on the shooters’ phones, which are much older?

Given the models in the Pensacola shooting case are iPhones 5 and 7, it’s unclear why a GrayKey hasn’t proven useful in that investigation. Forbes has previously revealed a GrayKey brochure that showed it worked on older devices, too.

It’s a question the DOJ probably doesn’t want to answer. It will have to, though. Senator Ron Wyden has already asked the DOJ to explain its actions in this case.

The most obvious answer is this: this case pushes all the buttons the administration wants pressed. It involves the shooting of US military members by a foreigner. The San Bernardino shooting was pretty much the same thing: the shooting of government employees by foreigners. These are the only two cases where the FBI has gone public about its desire to force Apple to undermine its own encryption. For everything else, there are third-party hacking tools that actually give the FBI the evidence it wants without undermining the security of millions of iPhone users.

The FBI will only push for precedent when it thinks it has the public’s support. It failed to read the room during the San Bernardino case. It hasn’t gotten any better at gauging public opinion since then. Even with Barr and Trump going on the attack, the public’s mood hasn’t shifted. Compelled encryption-breaking makes everyone less secure, not just the targets of investigations. Trying to parlay dead people’s phones into court precedent is not a good look for the agency. But the agency — and the administration running it — don’t particularly care what the public wants or is best for it.
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