Apple VS FBI Tussle in Plain English:FBI wants Apple to develop a customized Iphone OS, FBiOS, to run on Iphone 5C
On December 2, 2015, 14 people were killed and 22 were seriously injured in a terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, which consisted of a mass shooting and an attempted bombing. The perpetrators, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, a married couple living in the city of Redlands, targeted a San Bernardino County Department of Public Health training event and holiday party, of about 80 employees, in a rented banquet room. Farook was an American-born U.S. citizen of Pakistani descent, who worked as a health department employee. Malik was a Pakistani-born lawful permanent resident of the United States.
The FBI’s Request
In a search after the shooting, the FBI discovered an iPhone belonging to one of the attackers. The iPhone is the property of the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health where the attacker worked and the FBI has permission to search it. However, the FBI has been unable, so far, to guess the passcode to unlock it. In iOS devices, nearly all important files are encrypted with a combination of the phone passcode and a hardware key embedded in the device at manufacture time. If the FBI cannot guess the phone passcode, then they cannot recover any of the messages or photos from the phone.
There are a number of obstacles that stand in the way of guessing the passcode to an iPhone:
- iOS may completely wipe the user’s data after too many incorrect PINs entries
- PINs must be entered by hand on the physical device, one at a time
- iOS introduces a delay after every incorrect PIN entry
As a result, the FBI has made a request for technical assistance through a court order to Apple. As one might guess, their requests target each one of the above pain points. In their request, they have asked for the following:
- [Apple] will bypass or disable the auto-erase function whether or not it has been enabled;
- [Apple] will enable the FBI to submit passcodes to the SUBJECT DEVICE for testing electronically via the physical device port, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, or other protocol available on the SUBJECT DEVICE; and
- [Apple] will ensure that when the FBI submits passcodes to the SUBJECT DEVICE, software running on the device will not purposefully introduce any additional delay between passcode attempts beyond what is incurred by Apple hardware.
In plain English, the FBI wants to ensure that it can make an unlimited number of PIN guesses, that it can make them as fast as the hardware will allow, and that they won’t have to pay an intern to hunch over the phone and type PIN codes one at a time for the next 20 years — they want to guess passcodes from an external device like a laptop or other peripheral.
As a remedy, the FBI has asked for Apple to perform the following actions on their behalf:
[Provide] the FBI with a signed iPhone Software file, recovery bundle, or other Software Image File (“SIF”) that can be loaded onto the SUBJECT DEVICE. The SIF will load and run from Random Access Memory (“RAM”) and will not modify the iOS on the actual phone, the user data partition or system partition on the device’s flash memory. The SIF will be coded by Apple with a unique identifier of the phone so that the SIF would only load and execute on the SUBJECT DEVICE. The SIF will be loaded via Device Firmware Upgrade (“DFU”) mode, recovery mode, or other applicable mode available to the FBI. Once active on the SUBJECT DEVICE, the SIF will accomplish the three functions specified in paragraph 2. The SIF will be loaded on the SUBJECT DEVICE at either a government facility, or alternatively, at an Apple facility; if the latter, Apple shall provide the government with remote access to the SUBJECT DEVICE through a computer allowed the government to conduct passcode recovery analysis.
Again in plain English, the FBI wants Apple to create a special version of iOS that only works on the one iPhone they have recovered. This customized version of iOS, FBiOS, myabe m will ignore passcode entry delays, will not erase the device after any number of incorrect attempts, and will allow the FBI to hook up an external device to facilitate guessing the passcode. The FBI will send Apple the recovered iPhone so that this customized version of iOS never physically leaves the Apple campus.
If that court backs the FBI, and Apple again refuses, it could eventually reach the US Supreme Court, whose decision will ultimately be final, and in this utterly fascinating case, precedent setting.
That could take several years.