By Arielle Mullen

By now, you've no doubt been made familiar with the current dilemma facing Apple regarding the FBI's request to unlock the iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino shooters. With impassioned citizens on both sides of this debate, we thought we'd take a step back and present some of the key components in what is a complicated matter.

First, it's important to understand what exactly the FBI is asking Apple to do. The FBI intends to initiate a "brute force" attack on the phone, which means they'd use software to generate and submit all possible combinations of the PIN code protecting the phone, until one works and they can access it. Depending on the complexity of the PIN code, under normal circumstances this could take as few as 15 minutes, and as long as one hundred-fifty years due to standard security settings within the iPhone Operating System (iOS) that prevent more than one try every 5 seconds.

Further, after ten failed attempts at entering a password on an iPhone, there's the possibility that the phone may be configured to erase all local data. As a result, the FBI cannot try to "brute force" the PIN code without risking the possibility that the phone may erase all data. The software that the FBI is asking Apple to create would allow for endless attempts to crack the PIN code without this happening. 

The phone, which was given to the San Bernardino shooter by his employer, did not have Mobile Device Management (MDM) software installed. If it had, unlocking the phone would have been easily completed, negating the need for a drawn-out legal battle. Many employers use MDM for the smartphones and tablets issued to employees, as it allows employers to remotely reset passcodes, erase data on the phone (if lost or stolen), track via GPS, limit which apps are installed, and push software updates. MDM software is provided by many vendors like IBM and VMWare (M&I's recommendation). 

In an open letter to Apple's customers, Apple CEO Tim Cook stated his fear about the implications creating this software could have for the future. "Building a version of iOS that bypasses security in this way would undeniably create a backdoor. And while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control." 

Cook goes on to lament the FBI's order as irresponsible, as once the software was created, it would set a precedent and potentially put all Apple customer data at risk. "Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices. In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks - from restaurants and banks to stores and homes. No reasonable person would find that acceptable." 

Adding to the complexity of this case is the fact that in attempting to force Apple to comply with its demands, the FBI is citing the All Writs Act of 1789 as a legal justification. In order for this to be used, four qualifications must be met.

  • There must be no law currently on the books to deal with issue at hand.
  • The business in question (in this case, Apple), must have a connection to the investigation.
  • The circumstances must be extraordinary.  
  • The compliance isn't an unnecessary burden. 

The fourth qualification is where Apple may point to justify their inaction. Many people have cited instances of Apple assisting the FBI in data collection in the past, but it's important to keep in mind that in those cases, the iPhones in question were running older operating systems. With iOS 9 (the system in place on the San Bernardino shooter's phone), the previous extraction methods are no longer valid. 

While the Justice Department has expressed that they feel Apple's refusal to comply is nothing more than a publicity stunt "based on its concern for its business model and public brand marketing strategy," Apple remains steadfast in their assessment that the government is attempting a power grab; one which tests the limits of how far their reach should extend. Wherever your opinion falls regarding this complex issue, it's important to consider the implications that either decision will have for the future of privacy on our mobile devices.

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