The FBI’s iPhone Backdoor Would Compromise Security For Everyone

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.


The FBI wants Apple to produce a special version of its iPhone operating system that will allow them to hack into the phone of Syed Farook, one of the San Bernardino terrorists. They’ve generally been trying to portray this as a limited request that applies to just one case, but in testimony before Congress today they acknowledged explicitly that this isn’t true:

FBI Director James B. Comey appeared first, and while the Justice Department has tried to cast the issue as narrowly focused on one iPhone, he acknowledged early in the hearing that if the government succeeds in this case it could set a precedent for other cases.

….Comey acknowledged in his testimony Tuesday afternoon that this case could potentially set a precedent, pointing out that the same could be true of the ruling a day earlier in New York. “That’s just the way the law works, which I happen to think is a good thing,” he said.

If the federal government prevails here, Comey said they could go back and seek assistance in unlocking other devices in the future. But he also said that the larger questions about balancing encryption and the needs of law enforcement would not be resolved by a decision here.

This is the fundamental problem. When most people think about a “backdoor” for an encrypted device, they picture a master password of some kind. The danger, of course, is that if one person has that password, someone else might be able to get hold of it too.

But backdoors come in lots of flavors. The FBI wants a special version of iOS that allows them to try thousands of passcodes without bricking the phone. But engineers have to write that code. It gets stored in Apple’s version control system. Maintenance engineers update it when new iPhones come out. Librarians keep track of it. Other librarians make sure it’s backed up. That’s a lot of people who know how to access a very valuable piece of code. How safe do you think it would  be?

No telling. And even if you trust Apple’s legendary security, how about Microsoft’s? Or Google’s? Or Samsung’s? Once you build a backdoor, you’ve compromised security for everyone. This is the problem Congress has to deal with.

SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

payment methods

SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate