The reports about the FBI’s request for Apple to hack into the iPhone belonging to the San Bernardino terrorists is full of misinformation, much of it to promote various political and business agendas. I’ve been an engineering consultant to lawyers to support intellectual property litigation for about 20 years, so I know how to hack into devices. It’s possible, it’s done all the time in situations you rarely hear about, it’s done under a court order, and it doesn’t violate any rights. The controversy you hear now is because of political and marketing motives. Let me explain. Although I’m not involved with Apple or the FBI, and I don’t have any direct knowledge of this case, my experience in similar situations informs me about what is really going on.
This is Not an Unprecedented Move
I’m the head of an engineering consulting company that provides engineers for intellectual property litigation. Our main job is to reverse engineer hardware and software under a court order. To do this, we discover many technological secrets from many companies and are sworn to secrecy. There are strict penalties if we were to divulge these secrets. We are given access to each party’s confidential information as a trusted third party, rather than giving it to any party involved in the litigation or to the government.
At any time, we are working on as many as 30 cases involving some of the largest companies on the planet. I even worked on a case involving Apple several years ago, and Apple turned over their trade secrets as required by the court. Unlike in this situation, Apple had no option to refuse in that case. Also, though I cannot independently confirm it, there are reports that Apple previously unlocked as many as 70 phones in other cases.
This Will Not Violate Every Customer’s Privacy
The FBI is not asking for a backdoor to the Apple iOS as claimed by Apple, John McAfee (of the antivirus company that bears his name who is now running for president on the Libertarian Party ticket), and others. Apple says that the FBI wants Apple to create a new version of the iOS that has a backdoor that allows bypassing security on the devices. If true, this is a preposterous request and it would be illegal, so I don’t believe it’s the case. A new OS would not allow the terrorist phone to be hacked. In fact, it would have no effect whatsoever on any existing phone that already had an older, secure OS. This is more likely a red herring that Apple is using to garner publicity and show that it is protecting customers from the big, bad government. I also don’t want the government prying into our lives, but that’s not the case here. The law under which the government is requesting Apple’s help is the All Writs Act of 1789, which only requests (not “demands” as has been reported) that Apple assist the government. There is certainly no requirement that Apple create a new product line. And if Apple finds the order burdensome, it can refuse.
This is Not Just an Excuse for the Government to Get into Our iPhones
Asking Apple to do this is actually a common way to keep the government OUT of the situation. This allows Apple to maintain its trade secrets, something it is excellent at doing. It also DOESN’T give excess power to the government to snoop on us. If the NSA doesn’t already have that ability, then the government could hire hackers like the ones who are constantly breaking into “secure” credit card websites and stealing my information.
This Would Not Risk to the Security of Every iPhone
I worked for Apple in the 90s. Apple takes more pains to protect its trade secrets than possibly any other company on earth. Employees and contractors are required to learn practices for keeping strangers out of the company and keep internal documents from leaving the company. In fact, only in December of last year, Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, bragged that Apple has “more secrecy than the CIA.” So when he also argues that a tool created by Apple to unlock one particular phone in southern California would find its way into the world and endanger all Apple customers, he’s contradicting himself. At best.
There Are Others Who Could Unlock the iPhones, but Apple Could do it Faster
While there are certainly really smart people at Apple, there are many smart people outside Apple, including people who used to work at Apple, like me, that could crack into the terrorists’ iPhone if Apple refuses. There are entire companies that create phone hacking tools, which I’m sure Apple is more than happy to use when they are trying to determine whether another company pirated their hardware and software. However, a current Apple employees would be able to do it much faster because they are familiar with the internal workings of the phone. My team and I would require a long learning curve, one that is typically available in a year-long litigation but not when terrorists could be planning their next attack.
So What is This All Really About?
This situation has become a rallying cry for anarchists and fearful libertarians. True libertarians understand that one very important job for the government, maybe the only job of the government, is to protect property, and that includes human lives. Asking Apple to hack into one of its phones is doing precisely that job, yet in a way that allows a private enterprise to cooperate with the government while maintaining its trade secrets rather than turn that knowhow over to the government.
While John McAfee may be using this situation to enhance his political aspirations, and Apple may be using it to get free publicity, we should remember that lives are at stake and what the FBI is asking Apple is a common practice for getting critical information that could save lives, while actually protecting our privacy and allowing Apple to keep its valuable trade secrets intact.