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<nettime> Alex Hern: Is the FBI v Apple PR war even about encryption?
Patrice Riemens on Thu, 10 Mar 2016 10:43:58 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Alex Hern: Is the FBI v Apple PR war even about encryption?

Interesting background article after Edwards Snowden has declared FBI's 
professed inability to break thru an iPhone "Bullshit".

Original to:

Is the FBI v Apple PR war even about encryption?
By Alex Hern
The Guardian, Feb 23, 2016.

The war between Apple and the FBI is a PR war. And it’s one that the
FBI has fought well, from its initial selection of the battleground (a
fight over access to a dead murderer’s government-owned iPhone) to
the choreographed intervention of the relatives of the victims of the
San Bernadino shootings – who were contacted by the FBI for support
before the dispute even became public, according to Reuters.

But Apple has also been carefully controlling the debate through its
own interventions, and nowhere is that more obvious than Tim Cook’s
open letter published last week, headlined A Message to Our Customers.

The open letter places the latest fight in the context of wider
battles between Apple and governments worldwide over privacy
and security, and mirrors many of the talking points from those
early conflicts. From the first paragraph header, “The Need for
Encryption”, to the letter’s conclusion that “it would be
wrong for the government to force us to build a backdoor into our
products”, Cook implicitly draws the parallels between this case and
others, such as Apple’s earlier battle to try and prevent the UK
government forcing a backdoor into its encrypted iMessage chat system.

But that sleight of hand obscures the major difference between this
case and previous ones, and suggests that Apple, like the FBI, was
keen to engineer an all-or-nothing confrontation.

The FBI does not want Apple to break the encryption on the iPhone.
It wants Apple to break a security feature that makes it (nearly)
impossible to guess the pin code used to encrypt an iPhone.

It seems like a small point. What’s the difference between Apple
breaking encryption, or just making it trivially easy to guess the
password used to encrypt a device? Either way, the FBI would gain
access to the data inside.

But the distinction strikes at the heart of the encryption wars, which
started in the 1990s with the rise of strong consumer-grade encryption
and were reborn this decade as the technologies finally moved to the
mass market.

Encryption is special. Information can be encrypted using a device
you can carry on your wrist which cannot then be decrypted, even if
you use every supercomputer on Earth working in tandem – a fact
that prompted WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to write that “the
universe believes in encryption”.

Encryption is self-contained. Once you’ve encrypted a piece of
information, there’s no way to decrypt it without having access to
the encryption key. You can find out to the smallest detail how it
was encrypted, you can hack the software used to do the encryption,
you can even be the manufacturer of the software, but if you can’t
get hold of the encryption key, you can’t decrypt the information.

And encryption doesn’t care about anything other than the encryption
key. There’s no way to encrypt information so that it can only be
decrypted by the right person, unless “right person” is defined as
“anyone who knows the key(s)”.

Those truths have led to the biggest conflicts in the encryption
wars. When the head of the FBI said, in July 2015, that he wanted
“backdoor access” to encrypted data, the response – from
technologists, activists, reporters and security experts – was to
detail the inherent problems with doing so.

A backdoor into encrypted communications must be built into the
encryption protocol, such as iMessage, itself; in practice, proposals
for such encryption systems exist, and they involve a key, or a number
of keys, which can be used in concert to decrypt the communications.
But those keys, if they were ever stolen or leaked, would necessarily
be able to decrypt every single communication sent using the protocol,
presenting an enormous security risk the second such a feature is
built in to devices or software.

And so the last twenty years of the encryption wars have trained
security experts and activists to respond with trepidation whenever a
government starts talking about backdoors – training that Tim Cook
put to good use.

Cook’s letter firmly places this fight in the same technological
battleground as the previous battles. But what the FBI is asking now
is fundamentally different from its previous requests.

When an iPhone is powered off, the contents of its memory are
encrypted using a key that is derived from two pieces of information:
a hardware code unique to that iPhone, and the user’s passcode or
password used to lock the phone. The former ensures that the chip
can’t simply be pried out of the phone and decrypted elsewhere,
while the latter means that you can only decrypt the phone if you have
the PIN or password. Advertisement

But the standard iPhone protection is poor indeed when it comes to
encryption: a simple six-digit Pin. With just 1m possible options, an
attacker doesn’t need to break encryption to read the contents of an
iPhone: they just need to guess the code. That could be done in less
than a two weeks – and not with a supercomputer, but with an intern
manually typing in every single possible code.

And so Apple adds to that security with a second layer of security,
built not into the iPhone’s encryption, but into the operating
system itself: the more wrong guesses there are, the longer the delay
between entries, eventually rising to an hour between each possible
guess. A second, optional, feature allows the phone to be wiped
entirely after the tenth wrong guess.

Those security features are important to securing the iPhone,
particularly any phone which is otherwise protected with just a
perfunctory 4- or 6-digit passcode. But they aren’t the same as the
encryption of the device itself – and so breaking them doesn’t
have the same pernicious effect.

Putting a backdoor in iMessage, by which the FBI could read
otherwise-encrypted messages, would weaken the security of anyone
who used the service, whether or not the FBI wanted to read their
messages. By contrast, installing software on one iPhone to turn off
the anti-brute-force features (in Apple’s language, “building a
backdoor” into that iPhone) leaves the security of other devices

In fact, one aspect of mobile security this debate has revealed is
that there is already a backdoor in iPhones – or, at least, a
door of some sort: that’s the loophole that makes it possible for
Apple to update the operating system on a device that it doesn’t
have the passcode for. It’s clear that Apple, to a certain extent,
also recognises that door as a security weakness, because access
was tightened by the introduction of the Secure Enclave, a security
feature in the iPhone 5S and newer. But the phone at the centre of
this conflict is an iPhone 5C, based on older hardware.

Perhaps it is unfair to scrutinise Apple’s language in such a way.
It’s fighting an opponent that’s happy to use any tool it can to
get its own way, and so bending the truth to win the argument might be
for the greater good. There are still many reasons to be fearful of
the FBIs request, particularly the international precedent it sets.
Once Apple gives in here, does it have to give in to China as well?

And then there’s the risk that this is the first step on a slippery
slope. This time, the FBI is very clearly asking for Apple to
build software which will never leave Cupertino. But once Apple
complies, who is to say that the next request won’t be to hand that
software over to the FBI, or even state- or city-level police forces?
Proliferation of the weakened version of iOS (nicknamed ‘FBiOS’)
and the methods to install it really would harm the security of every
Apple customer, and may only be defeated at the first step.

But those battles are hard ones for Apple to fight, and it appears
it wants to frame the argument somewhat differently. In fact, this
situation is full of many more shades of grey than either Apple or the
FBI are prepared to concede.

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