Millions of Australians are among the ranks of loyal customers Apple is fighting for, in a legal battle that has the potential to change the face of digital privacy as we know it.
The tech giant is currently locking horns with the FBI after the American law enforcement agency issued the company with a court order, compelling Apple to help ‘unlock’ an encrypted iPhone 5C belonging to one of the San Bernardino shooters.
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If Apple obeys the order, the decision could leave the privacy of smartphone users across the globe vulnerable.
An indecent proposal
As part of the FBI’s investigation into Syed Rizwan Farook, a shooter involved in the San Bernardino terrorist attack of December 2015, the agency has obtained a court order to compel Apple to remove locking features from the accused’s iPhone.
Apple has stated previously there is currently no method for unlocking a password-protected, encrypted iPhone without using the correct passcode.
The measures ordered by the FBI would disable the iPhone’s auto-erase function, allowing the agency to use a ‘brute force’ password-cracking program – software that makes repeated ‘guesses’ in an attempt to find the correct password.
Complying with the order would entail Apple engineers and software specialists breaking security software the company has developed over a period of many years. The company prides itself in declaring this operating system as the most advanced protection possible from cybercriminals.
If forced to comply with the FBI, Apple will create a method to crack open any iPhone on the planet, which is a risk the company clearly does not wish to take.
In a statement on the company’s website, CEO Tim Cook said it “complies with valid subpoenas and search warrants, as we have in the San Bernardino case… But now the U.S. government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create. They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone.”
The company’s refusal to cooperate with the FBI has been criticised by several people including New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton and presidential candidate Donald Trump who suggests unlocking the iPhone is “common sense”.
Senator George Brandis also joined the chorus, saying all companies in the tech sector should cooperate with investigations into serious crime.
“We would expect, as in Australia, that all orders of courts should be obeyed by any party which is the subject of a lawful order by a court,” he told the ABC.
It has been proven numerous times that hackers with nefarious motivations can exploit mobile operating system security to gain access to personal information.
iOS devices were left vulnerable last year, when malicious software – dubbed ‘XcodeGhost’ – was found in various apps on the Chinese app store, leaving affected iPhone users’ personal data vulnerable to theft.
Although many operating system exploits are the result of hidden flaws in the software, there is no doubt that creating a method to break security, while making it easier for law enforcement to pursue evidence, also makes every user an easier target for malicious hackers.
Apple goes on to say that the sensitive personal information on every smartphone “needs to be protected from hackers and criminals who want to access it, steal it, and use it without our knowledge or permission”, and that “compromising the security of our personal information can ultimately put our personal safety at risk”.
Google not so secure
It appears Apple may be alone in this debate.
Following evidence leaked by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden, it was revealed that Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Yahoo had released user account data to authorities during the NSA’s operation Prism – a clandestine global surveillance program.
Apple has indicated it challenged every request it considered inconsistent.
This should come as troubling news for Android users, who comprise the majority of smartphone users across the world, not to mention those who use Skype or email services from Google or Yahoo. Any unencrypted data would be viewable by any party.
Posting to Twitter about Google’s stance on the current matter, Mr Snowden said: “This is the most important tech case in a decade. Silence means Google picked a side, but it’s not the public’s.”
Perhaps in a response to Snowden’s tweet, Google CEO Sundar Pichai has now stated the company builds “secure products to keep your information safe and we give law enforcement access to data based on valid legal orders. But that’s wholly different than requiring companies to enable hacking of customer devices and data. Could be a troubling precedent”.
Bad news for us all
The mounting pressure from law enforcement agencies across the globe to reduce security on smart devices is equaled by the amount of cyber security and encryption experts stating the opposite; that encryption needs to increase.
If Apple is forced to comply with the FBI’s request, we will witness the end of iPhone security as we know it.
No matter how perfectly crafted, a backdoor for the good guys, is also a backdoor for the bad guys.