FBI vs. Apple: a summary and the weekly roundup in tech and retail

News and commentaries

On Tuesday, Apple’s CEO Tim Cook published a customer letter in response to a court order. A federal judge is ordering the company to provide technical assistance to the FBI to help unlock an iPhone 5c from one of the gunmen from the San Bernardino, CA  attack. Apple is resisting this order and has been given until February 26 to respond formally in court.

What does the FBI want Apple to do?

Just to clear things up, Apple is not being asked to decrypt the iPhone 5c. The court order is also specific in stating that this concerns only this particular iPhone 5c, called “subject device”. In fact, it also clearly states that the “hack” will happen within Apple to ensure that the software created will stay within Apple.

Here’s the request, verbatim via the court order:

  • [Apple] it will bypass or disable the auto-erase function whether or not it has been enabled;
  • it will enable the FBI to submit passcodes to the subject device for testing electronically via the physical device port, bluetooth, WiFi or other protocol available on the subject device;
  • it will ensure that when the FBI submits passcodes to the subject device, software running on the device will not purposely introduce any additional delay between passcode attempts beyond what is incurred by Apple hardware.

Is it technically possible for Apple to comply?

Again, let’s be clear that the order is not for Apple to decrypt data in this particular iPhone. The order is to allow the FBI to use brute force to “guess” the PIN/passcode in order to gain access into the phone. In this case, it is technically possible. Here’s a great post on how this can be done.

Why is Apple resisting?

Apple argues that once created for this one phone, there is no absolute certainty that the same technique will not reused for other iPhones.

In the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession.

The government suggests this tool could only be used once, on one phone. But that’s simply not true. Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices. In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks — from restaurants and banks to stores and homes. No reasonable person would find that acceptable. (Tim Cook)

The important word here is “precedence”. If Apple complies or if the FBI wins the court order, it creates a dangerous precedence where compelling tech companies to create access to otherwise inaccessible data will be as simple as having a court order.

So what now?

Apple has until February 26 to formally respond in court. Law experts think that Apple will argue that the court places “unreasonable burden” on Apple. The order states:

To the extent that Apple believes that compliance with this Order would be unreasonably burdensome, it may take an application to this court for relief within five business days of the receipt of this order.

For more in depth view of the laws involved:

Here’s a few more links regarding this:

This issue has yet to play itself out. But as privacy concerns war with curbing acts of terror, it would be interesting to see how public discussions such as this will affect the nomination of the next Supreme Court justice after the unexpected death of Justice Scalia this week. Even more interesting is with the Senate’s plan to block any nomination from Obama until the next President, will this case reach a court of 8 instead of 9?

Here are this week’s most relevant news in tech and retail.

In tech:

  1. Space: China uprooting thousands to build telescope searching for aliens; Virgin Galactic will unveil its new SpaceShipTwo today; Google this: Israeli scientists eye $20M moon race prize
  2. A $7 smartphone is about to change the game in India
  3. Google Translate now supports 103 languages, covering 99% of Internet users
  4. Uber losing $1 billion a year to compete in China
  5. IBM buys Truven Health for $2.6B

In retail:

  1. Wal-Mart, reporting slower e-commerce growth, makes plans to expand number of products available online
  2. China Lunar New Year holiday retail sales up 11.2% year-on-year
  3. Deliveries: Amazon taking on Uber with its on-demand delivery service; Google launches fresh-grocery deliveries
  4. Kering lifted by euro and Gucci sales
  5. Nordstrom tumbles as holiday sales miss analysts’ estimates
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