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17 February 2016

The US government still wants access to iPhones – and Apple still says no

Apple's CEO Tim Cook says that by allowing the government to hack into a phone, he would essentially be building a "backdoor" for future invasions of customer privacy. 

By Barbara Speed

The US government really, really wants access to iPhones. And Apple is having none of it. 

Since December, FBI investigators have been trying to hack into the iPhone 5c of a perpetrator in the San Bernardino shootings. Apple has repeatedly refused requests for technical aid from investigators to hack into the phone, so the FBI has sought a court order from a US judge to force the company to help.

In response, Apple CEO Tim Cook has written an open letter to customers, published on the Apple website, explaining that he intends to ignore the order. For Cook, this is about far more than a single iPhone. The access the government is asking for, he argues, would amount to a “backdoor”: an access point the government could use to pry into users’ phones in future. Even if that doesn’t bother you, the problem with a backdoor accessible by the state is that it tends to be accessible to hackers, too. 

As Cook writes in his letter:

“Compromising the security of our personal information can ultimately put our personal safety at risk. That is why encryption has become so important to all of us.”

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It’s worth looking at some background here. Apple has always favoured encryption on its devices, which makes them essentially impervious to hackers and to state surveillance. De-encrypting messages requires “keys”, strings of numbers and letters which are used to translate the information.

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Since the release of its iOS 8 operating system, Apple hasn’t even held these keys themselves – partly so that governments can’t force them to compromise users’ privacy. They have, quite literally, thrown away the key to the iPhone. 

In light of this, the FBI is asking for a slightly different route in. It wants to be able to enter passcodes (the password used to unlock the phone) electronically, which would allow them to try out different combinations much faster and gain access to phones more easily. It has asked Apple to design a new operating system with this capability, and install it on the San Bernardino phone.

In his open letter, Cook writes:

 “In the wrong hands, this software – which does not exist today – would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession.

“The FBI may use different words to describe this tool, but make no mistake: 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’s argument is essentially what security and privacy experts are arguing all over the world: in the right government’s hands and in certain cases, using these methods would be justifiable. But once created, these tools could be used by the wrong people, and put customers at risk. Your move, FBI.