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Sunday, 21 February 2016 17:57

Apple v FBI: looks like the spooks have been caught out Featured

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Last week, when Apple refused to obey a court order asking it to effectively create a backdoor into iOS, its mobile operating system, it looked like a straightforward fight with the FBI.

But now, it looks like the FBI has contrived a situation to try and force Apple to do what many government officials and their supporters have been asking for: get the company to create backdoors into the iPhone.

That is the only conclusion one can draw after a remarkable few days following the FBI's obtaining of the court order asking Apple to create a way to bypass security on an iPhone 5C in order that it could gain access to data on the phone.

After Apple rejected the court order, the FBI filed a motion on Friday, asking that Apple be forced to comply with the earlier court order.

The iPhone that the FBI wants to access belongs to the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health; it was being used by its employee Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the two terrorists who launched an attack last year that killed 14 people.

Apple did not sit quietly by while the FBI was going to court; it began to leak information to the media, something very unusual for a company that only rarely indulges in leaks.

And from these leaks, it looks like Apple has been trying to help the FBI to gain access to the date since January; four options were apparently proposed for data recovery by the company, none of which involved creating a backdoor.

A passcode can be set on any iPhone and when this is entered one can use the device. All data is stored in the cloud and to look at that, the iPhone needs to have its correct Apple ID — again created by the user — entered.

The FBI does not know the passcode. It cannot guess it for two reasons: as one keeps entering passcodes, the time one has to wait to enter the next increases. And random guessing will work only up to a point after which the phone locks up and become useless.

The FBI's initial court order asked Apple to make changes in the firmware to remove these two limitations. It also asked Apple to provide a means of loading this firmware on the iPhone in question. This would then allow the FBI to indulge in random guessing of the passcode using brute force.

Now it turns out that the Apple ID on the phone was changed after the FBI took possession of it; the change was done via the web. Hence one means of gaining access to the data went out the window.

The FBI was pushing the line that this change of ID was done by the San Bernardino County but this has been countered by the revelation that the change was made in co-operation with the FBI. (Feb 22: The FBI has now admitted it asked for the Apple ID to be reset.)

After all these developments, it looks like the claim made by Apple chief executive Tim Cook is true: the FBI wants to create a legal precedent for asking Apple for a backdoor into iOS. This would open the door for everyone and his dog to follow suit.

And it looks like Cook was right to refuse to comply. The FBI has been caught out, not for the first time in its history, of trying to be too clever.

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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