Hot Take: FBI's Pressure On Apple To Unlock Legacy iPhones Is Really About Setting Precedence

Apple iPhone
Here we go again, the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is exerting pressure on Apple to help unlock an older iPhone model as part of a crime investigation, and just like before, there's another layer to the story. On the surface, it might seem reasonable to pressure a device maker to thwart its own creations, in the name of public safety and all that jazz. But that's a bulls**t excuse. I'll tell you why.

We saw this play out before. At the tail end of 2015, a pair of terrorists went on a shooting spree in San Bernardino, killing 14 people and wounding 22 others. It was awful. Both terrorists died in a shootout with police, and authorities subsequently recovered an iPhone 5C handset that belonged to one of the shooters. The FBI wanted Apple's help in unlocking the handset in hopes of finding critical evidence, but Apple refused.

The reason Apple would not assist in the manner requested is because it would have required building a backdoor into iOS. While that might be helpful for law enforcement in some instances, it would put the security of every iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch user at risk. Ticked off by Apple's refusal, the FBI filed a lawsuit compelling the company to cooperate, and initially won.

Apple held firm, saying America's founders "would be appalled" at the powers the US government holds, and so Apple and the FBI were on the path of a legal showdown that would set a precedent. Not long after, however, the FBI managed to crack the encryption on the iPhone 5C model in question with the help of a third-party, and then dropped its lawsuit.

"From the beginning, we objected to the FBI's demand that Apple build a backdoor into the iPhone because we believed it was wrong and would set a dangerous precedent. As a result of the government's dismissal, neither of these occurred. This case should never have been brought," Apple later stated.

FBI Wants Apple's Help In Unlocking Older iPhone Models (Again)

Fast forward to today and the matter is being resurrected, in principle. The FBI recently recovered a couple of older iPhone handsets belonging to Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, who killed three people and wounded eight others last month at a naval base in Pensacola, Florida. Once again, the FBI wants Apple to unlock the phones, and once again, Apple is refusing.

One of the handsets is an iPhone 5 and the other is an iPhone 7 Plus. And both of them should be crackable using existing methods offered by companies like Cellebrite and Grayshift.

"If they can boot up the phone then existing tools will work," Dan Guido, CEO of Trail of Bits, a company that consults on iOS security, told Wired. "I’m not sure how the state of the hardware may complicate matters, because there’s no detailed information about that. Even then, I’m sure forensics firms receive broken phones all the time."

Therein lies the rub—unless something is going on that we don't know about, the FBI can unlock phones without forcing Apple to code a backdoor into iOS. And according to Forbes, a recent search warrant by the FBI suggests the agency is even capable of cracking the security on an iPhone 11 Pro Max, and has already done so. The iPhone 11 series is the newest, most secure version of the iPhone to date.

Nevertheless, the FBI insists Apple needs to help, with President Donald Trump recently attacking Apple for doing nothing.

"We are helping Apple all of the time on TRADE and so many other issues, and yet they refuse to unlock phones used by killers, drug dealers and other violent criminal elements. They will have to step up to the plate and help our great Country, NOW! MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN," President Trump wrote on Twitter.

It's rubbish. None of this is actually about any particular criminal case, but the FBI's aversion to consumers having access to strong encryption. In fact, former FBI director James Comey stated in 2016 that there would be more legal battles over encryption. Lo and behold, we're on the cusp of one, or so it seems.

From the outside looking in, it sure appears the FBI is still trying to set a legal precedent. It may not need Apple to unlock older iPhones (or even the newest ones), but if it can compel Apple to comply through the legal system (or if Apple caves), it would be immune to future security efforts by Apple to lock down and protect consumer gadgets. Essentially, the floodgates would be opened.

How it all plays out, well, we will have to wait and see.