Ready to rumble: Apple vs. FBI


Let's get ready to ruuuummmmmbbbble! In this corner, we have the Justice Department, the prosecutorial arm of the U.S. government and, in its own words, defender of the people. And, in the other corner, we have the darling of Silicon Valley, a self-billed “true American company,” Apple.

In what promises to be a battle of epic proportions (think Godzilla vs. King Kong, Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier, The Rock vs. Hulk Hogan) the two giants are squaring off over the fate of an iPhone 5c. To the winner goes the spoils! But, of course, in this case, the spoils are much more than the iPhone at the heart of this legendary showdown.

The outcome of this fight – one that observers expect will make its way to the biggest ring of them all, the Supreme Court of the United States – will have long-lasting influence on privacy and more clearly define the boundaries of governmental reach.

It may also finally prompt a sluggish Congress to break its gridlock and craft overarching encryption and surveillance legislation.

“It should never have escalated to this, privacy should have been addressed,” says Lisa Sotto, managing partner in the New York office of Hunton & Williams, who focuses on privacy and cybersecurity issues. The government, she contends, should have “worked with tech companies to craft policies and processes.”

But escalated it has into what Justin Harvey (left), chief security officer for Fidelis Cybersecurity, calls “a landmark case,” noting that he is “aware of people getting compelled to unlock a phone, but I've never heard of a manufacturer being ordered to decrypt something by court order.”

Why the government and Apple squared off over this particular case is puzzling to more than a few observers – with some curious as to why Apple drew a firm line after years of compliance with similar government requests and others equally curious as to why the FBI is pushing against that line. Hard. 

But most believe the time is simply right, with many pointing to a confluence of events and undercurrents that have brought Apple and the FBI to an inevitable confrontation: A terrorist attack on U.S. soil by husband/wife team Syed Rizwan Farook and Tasheen Malik that followed close on the heels of the horrifying attacks in Paris has lent a sense of urgency to pending investigations. An FBI worried about the rise of homegrown terrorists adept at using technology to communicate and “going dark” to evade detection and relying on a law, the All Writs Act, that's more than 225 years old, as broad authority to demand tech companies provide access to data locked in iPhones and other smart devices. A post-Snowden world that finds companies once perceived as working too closely with government, now trying to rehabilitate their images with consumers. The rise of smart devices as the “footlockers” (according to the Supreme Court) of their owners' personal lives.

In the years since Edward Snowden unleashed documents pilfered from the National Security Agency (NSA) that revealed the extent of NSA surveillance of U.S. citizens and a certain complicity between government investigators and Silicon Valley companies, Apple, Google, Twitter, AT&T and the like have spent a lot of time and effort distancing themselves from those ignominious revelations and shining light – through transparency reports and other initiatives – on government data requests. 

Those companies have tried to extricate themselves from the surveillance business by putting more control over the contents of smartphones and other devices squarely in the hands of users by adding encryption, passcodes, biometrics and a kill feature – like the one activated on Farook's phone that wipes the device clean after a certain number of unsuccessful passcode attempts (in this case, 10). 

Add to that a gridlocked Congress – that has contributed to the blurring lines owing to its inability to produce definitive legislation – and you have the cliché commonly referred to as a perfect storm. Whatever the circumstances that led to the tense standoff, the FBI/Apple conflict in San Bernardino likely will become a test case for the FBI as to how far it can push tech companies to build backdoors into their products to aid the agency in the investigation of terrorists and other criminals. And, depending on which way the decisions go (decisions plural because this case is likely to go through many phases before potentially being settled by the Supreme Court), it could become known in the annals of history as the time Apple spurned the advances of federal prosecutors and struck a blow for digital rights.

Put up your dukes

The first punches in the conflict were thrown in December 2015 when the FBI seized the iPhone 5c issued to Farook by his employer, San Bernardino County, during its investigation of him and Malik, who after they killed 14 people and injured many others in a violent attack at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, Calif., were killed by police. Farook had backed up the phone to the cloud up until six weeks before the shooting spree and when the FBI seized the phone it instructed San Bernardino County to reset the iCloud password, a request that may have contributed to the feds' inability to access data on the phone going forward.

Apple was asked by the feds to unlock the phone, but refused, ostensibly because doing so would require creating ingress into its products. Once Apple spurned its advances, federal prosecutors petitioned a federal court in California to compel the iPhone-maker to hand over the tools the authorities need to crack the phone's encryption.

Sheri Pym, a U.S. Magistrate Judge for the Central District of California, then ordered the tech company to provide “reasonable technical assistance” to help law enforcement access encrypted data on the iPhone 5c. Included in that reasonable assistance was Apple's use of its exclusive expertise to bypass the auto-erase function on the phone so that FBI investigators could input an unlimited number of passcodes as they attempted to unlock the iPhone of the killers.

“Apple has the exclusive technical means which would assist the government in completing its search, but has declined to provide that assistance voluntarily,” according to the Justice Department's initial filing, which U.S. Attorney Eileen M. Decker, the chief federal law enforcement officer in the Central District of California, referred to as “a potentially important step – in the process of learning everything we possibly can about the attack in San Bernardino.”

Apple's reaction was swift. That same evening, CEO Tim Cook penned a letter to customers and posted it to the company's website, saying that “the U.S. government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create.” 

From there the government, Apple, its proponents and those that opposed the company's stance started trading comments, some of which appear to be thinly veiled insults and hints that the government is trying to pull a fast one while the company may not have its priorities right.

Let the trash talk begin

By the time Farook carried out his violent plans against his workmates, Apple had already helped the feds break into a number of iPhones, as Loretta Lynch, the 83rd Attorney General of the U.S., repeatedly reminded attendees at the RSA Conference in San Francisco in a March keynote.

“This is a very different position for Apple,” Lynch told the audience discussing the company's stance in the San Bernardino case. While she contended that the company has historically done a “good job” of protecting customer data, even while using it for marketing purposes, she charged Apple to comply with the law as it has done in the past.

“Apple has attempted to design and market its products to allow technology, rather than the law, to control access to data which has been found by this Court to be warranted for an important investigation,” Justice said in court documents. 

In his letter to customers, Cook points out that “when the FBI has requested data that's in our possession, we have provided it.” Apple, he stresses, indeed “complies with valid subpoenas and search warrants, as we have in the San Bernardino case,” adding that the company has “also made Apple engineers available to advise the FBI, and we've offered our best ideas on a number of investigative options at their disposal.”

But this case is different

In its formal response to the FBI's order, Apple told the court just how different this instance is from previous situations. Accusing the government of overreaching its authority, the company and its supporters say that the San Bernardino request that prompted Pym's order threatens to violate a handful of Constitutional amendments – the Fifth, First and Fourth. At RSA, Lynch dismissed arguments of Fifth Amendment violations since Apple is not the subject of the Justice Department's investigation. “Apple is not a target…[and] is not accused of doing anything wrong,” Lynch explained. “They're a third party,” so there is “no self-incrimination” involved.

As for contentions that the First Amendment applies to code, Lynch says it bears discussion but is “not germane to this case.”

But “nobody quite knows” how those amendments might apply, says Sotto. “It doesn't fit [neatly] into any legal regime.”

The attorney general furthered the government's argument that its request is a one-off, a less convincing claim considering how many similar requests are pending for numerous iPhones around the country, and, says Kevin Bankston, director of the Open Technology Institute (OTI), given that “the FBI has already spent the last year arguing for backdoors in front of Congress and at the White House.” Indeed FBI Director James Comey has been back and forth to Capitol Hill arguing the agency's case and appearing before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) to contend that the FBI's investigation has been hampered by the inability to crack the iPhone.

Further evidence that the Justice Department's request for Apple's help goes far beyond Farook's phone are nine cases across the country since the fall in which federal prosecutors are currently pressuring the company to provide help, Apple attorney Marc Zwillinger writes in a letter in federal court. Zwillinger notes that in all cases, Apple has pushed against the government requests. “Apple has not agreed to perform any services on the devices,” he writes.

Lynch's words at RSA perhaps are the most telling, hinting at the government's larger goal. While calling the request a one-off, in nearly the same breath she said that the “inability to access information that could actually save lives” is dangerous. Industry and government working together is critical in successfully combating violent extremism and the rise of the homegrown terrorist requires the collaboration of government and private industry, she said in a plea to the tech innovators in the room, noting that going dark is a “very real threat” that tech must help thwart by preventing terrorists and criminals from finding the “safe harbor they seek within dark corners” of the internet. 

“I think the issue of going dark has been a huge bugaboo for law enforcement for years,” says Sotto.

If Apple is made to provide access, there are a number of prosecutors across the country lying in wait to press the country into service. Cy Vance Jr., the District Attorney of New York County, has made it clear in no uncertain terms that he would petition Apple to open the nearly 200 phones he has in evidence for various investigations.

Privacy and security on the ropes

“The future of digital privacy also hangs in the balance,” Alex Abdo (left), staff attorney with the ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, says of the Apple case. “If the government can force companies to weaken the security of their products, then we all lose.”

Indeed, Apple's Cook writes, “Specifically, the FBI wants us to make a new version of the iPhone operating system, circumventing several important security features, and install it on an iPhone recovered during the investigation,” the letter says, warning that “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 California court order, then, Cook says, “has implications far beyond the legal case at hand.” 

Privacy advocates agree, with the likes of the ACLU, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) throwing their support behind Apple with court filings and a stepped up awareness campaign to keep a dialog going with the public and lawmakers. 

“We are supporting Apple here because the government is doing more than simply asking for Apple's assistance,” the EFF writes in a blog post penned by Kurt Opsahl, deputy executive director and general counsel. “For the first time, the government is requesting Apple write brand new code that eliminates key features of iPhone security – security features that protect us all.”

And Greg Nojeim, senior counsel and director of the Freedom, Security and Technology Project at the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT), chided the court for citing a law adopted in 1789 – the All Writs Act – on which it based its order. “If the order stands, the defective operating system (iOS) could be installed over any existing version of iOS, enabling law enforcement officials to guess the password on a cell phone,” Nojeim says.

Now that the agency has “come up empty,” OTI's Bankston contends, “it's trying to get a lower court judge to convert a vague, centuries-old, catch-all statute into a powerful government hacking statute. That's not how we make policy in this country, and Apple is right to fight this. A loss would not only undermine its product but its entire industry and the security of every user of digital technology.”

A number of privacy advocates agree. “Governments have been frothing at the mouth hoping for an opportunity to pressure companies like Apple into building backdoors into their products to enable more sweeping surveillance,” Evan Greer, campaign director for digital rights group Fight for the Future, says. “It's shameful that they're exploiting the tragedy in San Bernardino to push that agenda.”

The government's request, EFF's Opsahl notes, is akin to demanding Apple create a master key that can open a single phone that it would likely demand to use in other cases. “We're certain that our government will ask for it again and again, for other phones, and turn this power against any software or device that has the audacity to offer strong security,” he says. 

Abdo at the ACLU calls the government›s move “unprecedented, unwise and unlawful.” It could set a dangerous precedent, he says, that would be difficult to walk back.

“If the FBI can force Apple to hack into its customers' devices, then so too can every repressive regime in the rest of the world,” he explains, praising Apple “for standing up for its right to offer secure devices to all of its customers.”

“That sentiment is echoed by EFF's Opsahl, who writes that the availability of a “master key” would prompt governments worldwide to “surely demand that Apple undermine the security of their citizens as well.” What would be new authority could be abused in myriad ways, Opsahl says, expressing skepticism over the government's entreaty “to trust that it won't misuse this power.” 

Once a company would “create that mechanism,” says Sotto, “it's out there in the wild and it can't go back in the bottle.” As a result, it “becomes a tool available for oppressive governments to use,” she says.

At the end of the day, privacy advocates believe that the order undermines users' rights to safeguard and handle their own data. “The Constitution does not permit the government to force companies to hack into their customers' devices,” said Abdo at the ACLU. “Apple is free to offer a phone that stores information securely, and it must remain so if consumers are to retain any control over their private data.”

Chris Eng, VP of research at Veracode, says a “broader discussion around whether generic backdoors should be provided by technology providers to law enforcement is completely different, and the continued backlash against this is fully warranted” because it can't safely be done “without endangering users.”

Fight for the Future, a web rights group that worked to defeat the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), rallied privacy advocates by calling for protesters to gather outside of Apple stores nationwide on Feb. 23 to demand that the U.S. government drop its dangerous request, which would undermine the safety and security of millions of iPhone users worldwide. Demonstrators brought signs that read “Don't Break Our Phones” and “Secure Phones Save Lives.”

DoJ's efforts drew immediate fire from many security pros as well. “The DoJ is accusing Apple of exploiting the issue of backdoors as a marketing strategy while they simultaneously promote the idea that every surveille action is necessary to stop the next terrorist attack,” says John Gunn (left), vice president of communications at VASCO Data Security. “The history of mass surveillance programs doesn't support this and consumers endorse Apple's decision to not build-in a known security vulnerability.”

Alex Berger, product manager at STEALTHbits Technologies, notes that Justice's “dismissal of Apple's response as a marketing ploy could be interpreted as a shocking dismissal of the conversation that it has inspired, as well as ambivalence toward the fear underlying the conversation.” And, Berger asks, “Will there come a time when our right to privacy is sacrificed completely in the name of keeping us safe? 

Perception overseas

How the Apple case plays out could have an impact on the U.S.'s ability to uphold the Privacy Shield pact reached with the EU in February. “One of its major points is to create ‘clear safeguards and transparency obligations on U.S. government access,'” says Csaba Krasznay, product manager at Balabit. “Although this demand seems to be an internal issue in the United States at the first sight, this is a bad message for EU and its citizens.”

There's a fundamental difference in the way Europe and the U.S. view privacy. “We think about privacy as a consumer issue where in Europe, privacy is a fundamental right,” says Sotto.

Krasznay contends that “from the technology perspective, there shouldn't be a ‘magic key' to open any encryption on a vendor's device. If there is such a key, the trust level in the vendor will fail dramatically. This is a true Catch-22.”

Abdo told reporters recently that the flood of data requests would force technology companies to create compliance departments consisting of their best technologists. Those departments, he says, would eventually become targets of cybercriminals, who would quickly divine where a company's security secrets were kept.

But not everyone in the industry is in agreement with Apple's position, with some casting the company as a drama queen and acknowledging the challenges the FBI faces in tracking down terrorists and criminals.

Eng at Veracode, for one, takes issue with calling law enforcement's request a backdoor. “They're asking for a software update (which could be designed to work only on that one particular phone) which would then allow the FBI to attempt to crack the passcode and decrypt the data,” Eng says. “Such a solution would be useless if applied to any other phone.”

Pointing to Apple's past compliance with “requests to, for example, bypass lock screens in aid of criminal investigations,” he notes that “it's only in recent years that they've taken an ideological stance on consumer privacy.” That leads Eng to “believe Apple is taking this position less as a moral high ground and more as a competitive differentiator, betting that Google won't do the same.”

The San Bernardino County District Attorney Michael Ramos has thrown in his two cents, claiming in court filings that the Farooks could possibly have used the iPhone 5c as a weapon to introduce a dormant cyber pathogen into the county's infrastructure. Let that sink in for a moment. A dormant cyber pathogen. That's a fancy way of saying that shooter Syed Rizwan Farook may have used his county-issued iPhone to infect the government's networks with malware. 

And if the Cupertino, Calif.-based company's concerns over potential “unauthorized access to an encryption key” is its true motivation, says Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, who recently banned iPhones among county employees, then the problem should be defined and worked on as such. “Otherwise, Apple is proving indifferent to the need for evidence to hold people accountable who have harmed or intend to harm fellow citizens.”

Montgomery issued an inflammatory warning to the company, saying that it must pay the consequences of being the “official smartphone of terrorists and criminals.”

Philip Lieberman, president and CEO of Lieberman Software, says he doesn't “get” Apple's position. “Everyone knows they know how to open it up,” he says. “The backdoor has always been there.” The case, he says, “is all about the root certificate. Whoever gets to control the root certificate controls the code.”

Apple could ensure its assistance in the San Bernardino case is a one-off by taking a page out of the government's book in its dealing with the Iraq centrifuge case. “You invalidate the certificate after the thing is done and it can't be used any more,” says Lieberman.

Who'll throw the knockout punch?

Hard to tell how the legal wind is going to blow. While Apple is powerful and armed with a team of lawyers and resources, “it's still no match for a motivated federal government,” says Jeff Hill, channel marketing manager at STEALTHbits.

But Sotto says the FBI “may have gone a step too far” in pushing a court battle over the San Bernardino phone and may very well “get nailed” for its ambition. “They used to keep it under the radar,” she says of the FBI's liberal use of the AWA to get at data encrypted on smart devices. “But now they've revealed [it] and the whole program is going to be rolled back.” 

Apple did score a victory in another case under close scrutiny when a federal magistrate in New York ruled on Feb. 29 that the company did not have to comply with an FBI request to crack open an iPhone at the center of a drug case. Judge James Orenstein, known as a Fourth Amendment advocate, agreed. In a 50-page ruling he knocked the government for assigning itself broad authority under the AWA

“Under the circumstances of this case, the government has failed to establish either that the AWA permits the relief it seeks or that, even if such an order is authorized, the discretionary factors I must consider weigh in favor of granting the motion,” Orenstein writes. 

It was Orenstein who first raised questions over prosecutors' request that the court order Apple to unlock an iPhone 5s that the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) had seized in a drug investigation. In an October memo, Orenstein took aim at the government's expansive use of the AWA and asked Apple to respond, Abdo said in a conference call with the press in late February, praising the judge's decision.

“This is a victory for privacy, security and common sense,” Abdo says. “The government should not be able to run to court to get the surveillance power that Congress has deliberately kept from it.” 

Orenstein's ruling does not have legal standing with cases pending outside of New York, though it could wield some influence in California and elsewhere.

Congressional heavyweights

Apple and the FBI have been left to duke it out in the courts in large part because Congress, as has become its modus operandi, has stayed silent ringside. Locked in its own internal struggles, the lawmaking body has failed to produce one meaningful piece of legislation around encryption or set parameters for prosecutorial reach.

It has become increasingly apparent that the FBI has stretched the AWA well beyond its bounds – at least when it comes to the cybersecurity and collecting encrypted data from smart devices. “The established rules for interpreting a statute's text constrain me to reject the government's interpretation that the AWA empowers a court to grant any relief not outright prohibited by law,” Orenstein wrote in his decision.

As the Apple/FBI case dominates the national dialog, even finding its way to the presidential debate stage, many say Congress needs to step in and, more than referee the fight, actually lay down the ground rules of engagement.

“The courts can't keep doing it on a piecemeal basis,” says Sotto, who explains that Orenstein's decision is not binding. “It requires Congressional intervention.”

But, poking the sleeping giant may have paid off – some rumblings of legislation can be heard on the Hill. A day after Comey testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee, a bipartisan set of Democratic and Republican members of Congress, including Reps. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.; left) and Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) unleashed a bill, the Ensuring National Constitutional Rights for Your Private Telecommunications Act of 2016, that would preempt states' data security vulnerability mandates and decryption requirements.

“A patchwork of 50 different encryption standards is a recipe for disaster that would create new security vulnerabilities, threaten individual privacy and undermine the competitiveness of American innovators,” Lieu says. “It is bad for law enforcement, bad for technology users and bad for American technology companies.”

The Congressman, who has distinguished himself as a champion of privacy and is one of the few members of Congress with a computer science degree, stresses that “national issues require national responses” and that the bill he and Farenthold introduced “makes sure that this conversation happens in a place that does not disrupt interstate commerce.

The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), is considering encryption legislation though he quickly backed away from his earlier claims that he would include criminal penalties in his legislative proposals.

And Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) used the stage at RSA Conference 2016 to stump for a bill he introduced with Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) that would create a panel of technology and legal experts that would work together to solve security issues. McCaul calls the idea of having vendors install backdoors that would allow law enforcement to enter devices used in a crime as an ineffective tactic, saying any criminal, terrorist or nation-state actor would simply move away from using such a device in order protect itself.

The ongoing battle between Apple and the FBI, McCaul implies, is a pivot point to push for the adoption of his bill to create the National Commission on Security and Technology Challenges. He says the argument taking place is driving a wedge between law enforcement and the public sector – which is not good for the nation.

“I am not out to demonize encryption,” he says. “It protects our national interests, but it can also allow our enemies to do the same thing.”

And the White House has cast its hat in the ring regarding the issue of encryption. In February President Obama introduced a bold Cybersecurity National Action Plan (CNAP) that not only included a significant dollar commitment to cyber in the fiscal 2017 budget, but under two executive orders called for the creation of a Commission on Enhancing National Cybersecurity and a Federal Privacy Council.

“This is a really broad-based action plan,” Michael Kaiser, executive director of the National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA), says, calling CNAP a “classic” cybersecurity initiative. “We're glad to see this effort.”

And Mark Weatherford, chief cybersecurity strategist at vArmour, also applauded Obama's actions. “Security needs to be a team sport where innovation meets policy, and where the technology community and Washington D.C. collaborate to address the nation's cybersecurity challenges.”

Will Apple win the PR war?

Whether or not it delivers a knockout punch to the FBI efforts, Apple has another fight on its hands: Winning the support of the public. Cook believes Apple will prevail there. “Over the past week I've received messages from thousands of people in all 50 states, and the overwhelming majority are writing to voice their strong support,” he writes in his letter to customers. “One email was from a 13-year-old app developer who thanked us for standing up for ‘all future generations.' And a 30-year Army veteran told me, ‘Like my freedom, I will always consider my privacy as a treasure.'”

But STEALTHbits Hill doesn't hold much hope for a victory in either ring. “It is unlikely Apple can win in a court of law, [but] it is virtually certain they'll lose in the court of public opinion,” he says. “Irrespective of the legal challenges, however, Apple, the cybersecurity community and civil libertarians all need to understand that the average American doesn't know a backdoor from a screen door and, more importantly, doesn't care.” 

Distinguishing between the pros and cons can elude many in the public. “Privacy advocates are unquestionably on the right side of this issue philosophically, but in the real world, the vast majority of Americans are less concerned about their credit card being stolen off a less secure iPhone than they are a terrorist collecting automatic weapons and explosives in the next apartment,” he says.

And a study commissioned by the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), finds that across the globe, citizens favor letting law enforcement gain access to private online conversations – provided it has a valid national security reason for doing so. In fact, 70 percent say agencies have that right, and the number jumps to 85 percent if those conversations belong to someone suspected of a crime. Apple might find it disheartening that 60 percent of Americans don't think companies should create technologies that thwart law enforcement efforts to access a user's online data. 

“The findings in this survey shine an important light on the nexus between trust, national security and privacy in the increasingly dark and ungoverned space of the internet,” says Fen Hampson, director of CIGI's Global Security and Politics program and co-director of the Global Commission on Internet Governance. 

Whether Apple eventually can convince the public and the courts to support its efforts remains to be seen, but it promises to be one helluva fight between two undisputed heavyweights. 


Competitive disadvantage

The Justice Department has slammed Apple's public repudiation of the California court order, stating it “appears to be based on its concern for its business model and public brand marketing strategy.” 

The company, it said in court documents, “has attempted to design and market its products to allow technology, rather than the law, to control access to data which has been found by this Court to be warranted for an important investigation.” 

While the company has declared its main motivation in challenging the government is to protect the privacy and security of its customers, it has stressed in court documents that it is, in fact, concerned what the outcome of the case might have on its reputation. If compelled by the court to break the security of its own products, the damage to its brand will be irreparable, it says.

Indeed, Apple is already feeling the heat from potential customers for spurning the FBI's entreaties to open the San Bernardino iPhone. Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said in a February statement that he was banning iPhones for the county's more than 900 employees. Of the 564 smartphones used throughout the prosecutor's office, 366 are iPhones and the ban currently applies to replacement and upgrade phones. “Apple's refusal to cooperate with a legitimate law enforcement investigation to unlock a phone used by terrorists puts Apple on the side of terrorists instead of on the side of public safety,” Montgomery said in a statement, calling Apple's refusal to bend to federal prosecutors a “corporate PR stunt.” 

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