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Apple’s encryption dilemma explained – does giving the FBI access matter?

John E Dunn | March 1, 2016
Apple vs the FBI is a test case that has the potential to redefine the limits of security.

All companies must be prepared to bypass the security of their own devices on a case-by-case basis in cases demanded by national security, the upholding of law and (because this is the US) the Constitution. Others have argued that Apple could create a single-use image that could only be used on the San Bernardino shooter's phone and no other device. It's not clear how easy that would be to achieve, however.

There is a strange uncertainty in all of this even for technical people who understand software security on mobile devices.

Why pick on Apple now?

None of the issues raised by this case are new. Encryption and security have been a battleground for years although the growing sophistication of the what is now available on consumer devices has started causing real issues for police services. What changed recently is the underlying politics. The FBI knows it will look bad asking any tech firm to bypass security without a very good reason, one supported by the bulk of the public.

It seems that the San Bernardino attacks offered a test case just too good to pass up. Apple undoubtedly feels that if it gives in over this issue it will only be the beginning of the compromises it will be asked to make. It is probably right on that score. For Apple and privacy advocates the use of an old law to force a change in the balance of power is a critical moment. This one will could all the way to higher courts.

Apple's encryption dilemma explained - conclusion

The argument against Apple's stance is that a mechanism for legal, legitimate bypass must be created or much worse will follow. Intelligence services will start attacking the underlying hardware and firmware used by these chips, assuming they haven't already done that. Apple's stance will simply slow down the NSA and set public opinion against the sector.

A lot rides on this case - doubtless GCHQ and other intelligence services in social democracies will be watching events carefully.

 

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