Did The DOJ Lie At The Beginning Of Its iPhone Fight, Or Did It Lie This Week?
from the gallantly-the-DOJ-chickened-out dept
So now that there’s been a little time to process the Justice Department’s last minute decision to bail out on the hearing in the San Bernardino case, claiming it was because some mysterious third party had demonstrated a way to hack into Syed Farook’s iPhone, it’s becoming increasingly clear that (1) the DOJ almost certainly lied at some point in this case and (2) this move was almost entirely about running away from a public relations battle that it was almost certainly losing (while also recognizing that it had a half-decent chance of also losing the court case). Just replace “Sir Robin” with “the DOJ” in the following video.
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) March 22, 2016
However, there’s now a ton of speculation going around about the likely method (and the likely third party) that the FBI is probably using, involving copying the storage off the chip and then copying it back to brute force the passcode without setting off the security features or deleting the data. But, again, this possible solution isn’t really new. Just a few weeks ago, during a Congressional hearing, Rep. Darrell Issa quizzed FBI Director James Comey about this very technique (which was so deep in the technical weeds, that many reporters and other policy folks were left scratching their heads):
Comey: We wouldn’t be litigating it if we could [get in ourselves]. We’ve engaged all parts of the US government to see ‘does anyone have a way — short of asking Apple to do it — with a 5c running iOS 9 to do this?’ and we do not.
At that point Issa starts asking really technical questions about can’t the FBI remove the data from the phone to make copies of the storage, putting it with the encryption chip, trying passcodes, and then reflashing the memory before the 10 chance are used up — thus brute forcing the passcode without setting off the security features. As Issa notes:
If you haven’t asked that question, how can you come before this committee and before a federal judge and demand that somebody else invent something if you can’t answer the question that your people have tried this? … I’m asking who did you go to? Have you asked these questions? Because you’re expecting to get an order and have somebody obey something they don’t want to do and you haven’t even figured out if you can do it yourself.
Comey is clearly befuddled by the questions and basically says that he’s sure that his people must have thought about this, but he assumes that they’re watching and if they haven’t thought of this then they’ll test it out. But, really, a few people had suggested similar things early on, so if that is the solution then it only adds weight to the idea that the FBI didn’t do everything it could possibly do before running to the judge.
Others have questioned the “two week” timeframe for the DOJ to issue a status report to the court, noting that a brand new solution would almost certainly take much longer to test thoroughly before using it on the iPhone in question.
And then there’s the other question: if the FBI really has tracked down a new “vulnerability” in Apple’s encryption… will it tell Apple about it so that Apple can patch it? Remember, the White House has told the various parts of the federal government that they should have a “bias” towards revealing the flaws so they can be patched… but leaving a “broad exception for ‘a clear national security or law enforcement need.'” It’s pretty clear from how the DOJ has acted that it believes this kind of hole is a “law enforcement need.”
So, if the FBI really did figure out a vulnerability in Apple’s encryption, it probably won’t actually reveal it — but I’d imagine that Apple’s security engineers are scrambling just the same to see if they can patch whatever flaws there may be here, because that’s their job. And, again, that gets back to the point here: there are always some vulnerabilities in encryption schemes, and part of the job of security folks is to keep patching them. And one of the worries with the demand for backdoors is that the introduce a whole bunch of vulnerabilities that they’re then not allowed to patch.
Either way, the DOJ’s actions here are highly questionable, and it seems pretty clearly an attempt to save face in this round. But the overall fight is far from over.