FBI to Apple: We'll crack the terrorist's iPhone without you

The FBI’s battle with Apple to unlock an iPhone used by terrorist Syed Farook before the San Bernardino attack that left 14 dead seemed headed for a showdown in court this week. Just prior to the case being heard, however, the Department of Justice asked for a postponement. At first it appeared that the government might have “blinked,” as USA Today put it, but now it looks as though the question of whether the government can order decryption might be moot. The FBI found a more willing partner — in Israel:

Israel’s Cellebrite, a provider of mobile forensic software, is helping the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation’s attempt to unlock an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino, California shooters, the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper reported on Wednesday.

If Cellebrite succeeds, then the FBI will no longer need the help of Apple Inc, the Israeli daily said, citing unnamed industry sources. …

The development could bring an abrupt end to the high-stakes legal showdown which has become a lightning rod for a broader debate on data privacy in the United States.

The case until now has rested on whether the FBI and DoJ could force Apple to write software to defeat its own systems, even for a one-off event. Apple argued at the time that it wasn’t just a one-off kind of request, and that writing the software would damage its brand. That would still be true if the FBI gets Cellebrite to do it, but at least it doesn’t have the same legal baggage of forced production. That still seems unlikely to “end the high-stakes legal showdown.”

In fact, it might have the opposite effect. If the government can decrypt iPhones without Apple’s cooperation, that might let Apple off the hook with its consumers in the short run. However, it might also undermine Apple’s business case that its systems are hacker resistant, even if its management remains undaunted. It also puts the government in position of essentially funding and endorsing commercial hackers to Apple’s detriment. If anyone thinks Apple will let that slip by their lawyers, think again. That will also create an impulse to further harden the encryption, and we’ll eventually be back around to the same issue.

Apple might have a more difficult time with its “principled stance” because of Brussels than Cellebrite. Bloomberg’s tech panel discusses the FBI’s strategy, and the way in which terror attacks might erode Apple’s insistence that its own security transcends that of the US, and USA Today follows up as well:

The act of terrorism in Brussels on Tuesday, which killed at least 30 people and wounded 230, could rekindle the government’s resolve just as the terrorist assault in California last year prompted the FBI’s clash with Apple, cyber security experts say.

The FBI “will use this terrorist attack to advance its case,” says Avivah Litan, a vice president at market researcher Gartner. “The public reacts very strongly to these types of incidents, and insists the government needs to do what is necessary to get the bad guys.”

It was that sentiment, Litan and others say, that emboldened the bureau to undertake its very public cause against Apple. San Bernardino, they claim, checked all the boxes in the FBI’s quest to find an air-tight case to push for weakened encryption on smartphones and other digital devices.

If encrypted data are an “element” in the bombings at the Brussels airport and subway station, there is renewed support for the FBI’s argument, adds Paul Rosenzweig, a law professor at George Washington University, who also advises tech start-ups.

Don’t expect this fight to go away any time soon.

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