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Friday, 18 March 2016 09:34

FBI upped ante in iPhone affair, says Tim Cook Featured

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Quiet discussions between the FBI and Apple over gaining access to data on an iPhone belonging to the employer of one of the terrorists involved in shooting dead 14 people in California were suddenly thrust into the public domain when the FBI obtained a court order on February 16, demanding that Apple meet its requests.

And this resulted in Apple chief executive Tim Cook responding in kind, according to an interview which he gave to Time.

The shooting took place on Wednesday, December 2, and it was not until Saturday, December 5, that the FBI made contact with Apple's round-the-clock desk set up for handling such government requests, according to Cook.

At that stage, the San Bernardino County health department had already been told by the FBI to reset the iCloud password on the iPhone 5C, one of three iPhones that had been in the possession of Syed Rizwan Farook, and the lone device that had not been destroyed by Farook.

There was plenty of co-operative back and forth between Apple and the FBI at this stage, Cook said. The company had suggested the FBI power the iPhone and let it backup. The data could then be retrieved from iCloud.

But since the pass code had been changed, this option of gaining access to the data was not possible.

Cook said the FBI had then suggested that Apple create a modified version of iOS which would remove the limit of 10 tries for guessing the pass code and also the time intervals between those guesses; after the ninth try, for example, an hour has to elapse before the system will allow the 10th and final try.

The FBI wanted this modified iOS to be loaded on the iPhone so it could then guess the pass code using a brute-force attack. A four-digit pass code has 10,0000 possibilities and normally one hits pay dirt around the halfway mark.

Cook said there were internal discussions about this option — which Apple refers to as GovtOS — and the conclusion was that it should not be done, adding that he thought this was the end of the matter.

But on February 16, the whole world knew about the matter when the FBI went to court to ask Apple to comply. When that failed, the agency got a further court order, this time compelling Apple to come to heel.

After that, as is well-known, the matter has escalated and will be heard in court on March 22. Everyone, right from US President Barack Obama downwards, has weighed in with an opinion.

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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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