Last week, a major player in the social media forum world used a legal hack to alert its subscribers that it had been served a National Security Letter (NSL). NSLs are a legal tool used by federal agencies when those agencies are seeking information about an American company's customers or subscribers. Part of all such letters is a “gag order” forbidding the company from disclosing the existence of the NSL.
After a month of claiming — in court documents, sworn testimony, and public statements — that “Apple has the exclusive technical means” to access the data on the encrypted iPhone 5C used by one of the San Bernardino shooters, the FBI has now dropped the case. The agency claims it “discovered” a “new” method that allowed investigators to access that data without forcing Apple to build a backdoor into the iOS platform.
The FBI and Apple will not get their day in court. At least not yet. The hearing over whether Apple must weaken the safeguards around its own encryption at the behest of the government — scheduled for Tuesday — was postponed by the Justice Department at the last minute. The FBI is now saying what tech experts have been saying all along: There may be a way to get into the iPhone used by the San Bernardino shooter without forcing Apple to create a backdoor.
In the FBI vs. Apple battle over encryption, Apple's lawyers have said that the company will take this all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary. The big question looming over the case is: What will Apple do if it loses before that court? The answer is that the company will obey the order, but its engineers may not.
As the FBI and Apple wage battle over the rights of private citizens to protect their data and communications by using encryption, both the FBI and the White House have said the FBI has “the full support" of the president. Last week, President Obama made that support clear in a speech in Texas.
The FBI said it had no choice but to seek a court order to force Apple to create a backdoor into the iOS platform. But there are some facts of this case that — when seen together — paint a clear picture of the FBI creating and exaggerating the problem it says it can't solve without a backdoor into the iPhone.
As the Apple/FBI case heats up, the surveillance hawks continue to insist that backdoors into the encryption that protects smartphones are necessary to address the threat of terrorists and other dangerous criminals “going dark.” But one of the most respected voices in computer security says that “solution” is more dangerous than the problem it proposes to solve.
Representatives of both Apple and the FBI appeared before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. Over a period of five and a half hours, the committee heard sworn testimony about the underlying issues in the case of the FBI attempting — via court order — to force Apple to create a backdoor for the iOS platform.
There is a lot at stake in the case of the FBI demanding that Apple create new software to enable the agency to circumvent the encryption on the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters. The FBI argues that the phone may contain information about his terrorist contacts. Privacy advocates and Apple argue that the software the FBI wants is a backdoor and would threaten the privacy — and liberty — of anyone using encryption on any device to protect their data and communications.
Donald Trump has waded into the battle between the Justice Department and Apple over smartphone encryption. The controversial presidential candidate has called for a boycott of “all Apple products until such time as Apple gives cellphone info to authorities.”
Earlier this week, a District Court Judge ordered Apple to build a backdoor into the encryption software used in the iOS platform used by iPhones.