The FBI wants access to the encrypted data on an iphone owned by one of the the San Bernardino terrorists. The FBI has already gotten access to the data this iphone uploaded to Apple's cloud. However, the FBI thinks there is more data on the phone that wasn't uploaded. Here's a quick recap:
- The FBI can't access information on the iphone because the brute force technique the agency uses to "guess" user passwords doesn't work with the iphone. Brute force password guessing would cause the phone to permanently block access to the data after 10 attempts if that option is turned on (and they think it is). Even with the option off, it could take up 5.5 years to crack the password, because the iphone inserts a 10 ms delay between password attempts.
- The FBI went to court to force Apple to provide them with a way to turn off the features that prevent them from using their simple password guessing technique in the future.
- Apple refused, because it is currently engaged in a struggle with the Chinese government over the same issue. Apple knows that if it complies with the FBI on this, it will become the rope in a violent tug of war between the two governments over who gets access to encrypted iphone data. Since 25% of Apple's sales and nearly all of its growth is coming from China, it's clear they would like to avoid making a choice between the US and China.
Of course, Apple's worry doesn't make it right in this fight. I couldn't care less if they make money or not. They are right because, with the threats we will soon face, backdoors like this are no longer good for national security. They harm it.
- Backdoors that allow access to encrypted data, like the backdoor the FBI is demanding, can be useful in fighting blood and guts terrorism. It makes it easier to unwind terrorist cells and financing (usually after the attack though).
- However, blood and guts terrorism isn't the threat it once was. It is the last war. The growing threat will be from nations and groups armed with cognitive bots. Bots capable of accomplishing a great number of human scale tasks very, very quickly. In this new type of war, anything that slows or delays an attacker is worth preserving. In this case, the difficulty of breaking the encryption on the widely used iphone is a good thing.
- In wars where bots do most of the fighting, all backdoors become a zero day vulnerabilities -- unpatched vulnerabilities that allow attackers rapid, unopposed access to the system. Inserting vulnerabilities into the iphone would almost certainly make it useful as a major avenue of attack by the bot armed threats we'll face in the near future.
Let's not prepare for the last war by making ourselves vulnerable to the next one.