If you haven’t heard about the ongoing encryption showdown that has pitted tech giant Apple against the FBI, you’re probably not living on planet Earth. But here’s a quick breakdown: The involved parties are at loggerheads over an iPhone 5c recovered during the investigation of the San Bernardino massacre last December.
FBI is asking Apple to help it break into the phone by developing a special version of its iOS operating system, which would enable the feds to bypass security measures that protect against brute-force attacks. Apple is vehemently denying the request, maintaining that doing so will compromise the security of all iPhones and the privacy of its consumers.
The FBI has filed an order to compel Apple to unlock the phone, and Apple has managed to secure a February 26 extension to reply to the court order. The debate has once again driven a wedge between proponents of privacy and civil liberties on one end, and law enforcement agencies on the other.
Apple has garnered support from major tech firms such as Google, Facebook and Twitter, and privacy and civil liberties bodies such as EFF and ACLU. The FBI’s main backers are government authorities and bodies and – strangely – Microsoft’s Bill Gates.
Regardless of whose favor the battle will tip to, this new faceoff will prove to be a watershed moment in the now-two-decade-old Crypto Wars. Here’s my perspective of the different outcomes.
Apple gives in to FBI’s demand
In this scenario, Apple CEO Tim Cook comes to heel and orders the development of the FBiOS, FBI gets to brute-force its way into Syed Farook’s phone, and it lays its hands on the much coveted data that is stored on the device. I personally don’t think they’ll find much of import, because if the attackers were savvy enough to smash all their phones and computers before heading for the rampage, then they were probably smart enough to make sure that the iPhone wouldn’t leave any valuable trace of their communications.
But regardless of what is found on the phone, this will set a precedent for government agencies making similar demands to apple and other phone and software companies. There are already hundreds phones in the custody of local law enforcement agencies, and they’ll definitely want their shot at FBiOS to crack them open.
But the worst repercussion will be similar demands that other countries will make, especially authoritarian regimes that will want to use the technology to crackdown on dissidents and activists. Why should Apple deny one government access to iPhone data when it’s granting it to another? And of course, we live in a digital world where nothing remains secret. Who’s to guarantee that a weakened version of iOS signed with Apple keys will not find its way into the possession of malicious actors?
Apple will be dealt a big blow economically, as consumers will lose their trust in the brand and will opt for other companies that will not compromise their privacy.
Having coined the victory, FBI will take the next step, demand that Apple rolls back its OS security to the pre iOS 8 era, where breaking into phones was a trivial task. And after that will come demands for key escrows and wiretapping facilities… And before you know it, encryption and privacy for the average consumer will become a thing of the past.
But not for criminals and terrorist. They’ll develop plenty of ad-hoc and in-house encryption apps and software to hide their traces while darkly going about their devious business, and the feds will be none the better.
Apple wins the debate
In such a scenario, Apple wins the fight, the iPhone remains unlocked along with its secrets. The government abandons the case and goes looking for loose ends elsewhere – and there’s plenty of data and metadata to collect already since we’re in the golden age of surveillance – and they’ll find out that they already had all the information they needed.
Tim Cook will become a hero and known as the frontrunner for consumer privacy and security (Bill Gates will probably be shamed). Apple sales will skyrocket, and the company will make sure that the next version of iOS will have stronger encryption and will seal the gaps that can be take advantage of by legal or illegal means.
This outcome will also set a precedent and will mark a major victory for encryption proponents. It will drive government agencies a step further from their goal of gaining a foothold in secure communications, and the legalization of backdoors and key escrows will become a thing of the past. However they will not give up and will continue to try implanting backdoors in major products and software through overt and covert venues.
The coming days and weeks might see dramatic changes in balance of power in the encryption debate. But one thing’s for sure: Encryption is here to stay.