March 30, 2020
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Apple’s lawyers say that not only does the compromised operating system that the FBI wants to install on the iPhone used by a terrorist not exist, but that it would take between six and 10 engineers and other employees as long as a month to create it. That fact, the company argues, along with a lack of legal support for the FBI’s demands, should be enough to vacate the court order that is compelling Apple to assist the FBI in its iPhone hack.
On Thursday, Apple filed a motion to vacate an order imposed last week by a court that would force the company to develop and install a backdoor version of iOS on an iPhone used by Syed Farook, one of the alleged shooters in the mass killing in December in San Bernardino, Calif. The motion is long and dense, but also quite direct about what Apple’s executives and lawyers say would be an undue burden on the company to comply with the court order.
“The compromised operating system that the government demands would require significant resources and effort to develop. Although it is difficult to estimate, because it has never been done before, the design, creation, validation and deployment of the software likely would necessitate six to ten Apple engineers and employees dedicating a very substantial portion of their time for a minimum of two weeks and likely as many as four weeks,” the motion says.
“No operating system currently exists that can accomplish what the government wants, and any effort to create one will require that Apple write new code, not just disable existing code functionality.”
The government has argued that under an obscure 1789 law called the All Writs Act that Apple must help the FBI bypass the security on the iPhone 5C Farook used. But in its motion, Apple says the act was intended to “fill in gaps in the law”, and “does not grant the courts free-wheeling authority to change the substantive law, resolve policy disputes, or exercise new powers that Congress has not afforded them.”
Apple’s motion came a few hours after FBI Director James Comey told the House Intelligence Committee that if law enforcement agencies don’t have these legal tools at their disposal, things will change significantly.
“If we’re going to move to a world where that’s not possible anymore, the world will not end, but it will be a whole lot different,” Comey said.
“This is not a case about one isolated iPhone.”
Apple CEO Tim Cook, in an interview with ABC News on Wednesday, said the court order could set a dangerous precedent, not just for Apple, but for other private companies, as well.
“If a court can ask us to write this software, think about what else they could ask us to write. Maybe it’s an operating system for surveillance, maybe the ability for law enforcement to turn on the camera,” Cook said.
“I don’t know where this stops, but I do know this isn’t what should be happening in this country.”
One of the FBI’s arguments for Apple’s assistance in this case is that the software it wants can be created once, used, and then destroyed. The bureau has said this is not an effort to backdoor iOS or develop a tool for future use. In its motion, Apple addresses that argument in the first sentence.
“This is not a case about one isolated iPhone,” the opening sentence of the motion says.
The Apple-FBI confrontation has played out publicly, unlike most of the disagreements between law enforcement and technology vendors. The public debate has drawn plenty of attention, including that of lawmakers. Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), who has been vocal about security and privacy issues in the past, said the FBI’s demands of Apple are a last resort, after legislative efforts to compromise encryption failed.
“As a Member of Congress, I can confirm that last year the FBI tried and failed to get Congress to enact proposals that would provide a ‘back door’ way to access data on smartphones. As a Member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and its Information Technology Subcommittee, we held hearings on this exact issue,” Lieu said in a statement
“During the hearing, the government witnesses admitted that it was impossible to create a back door just for the FBI without risking that back door from being exploited by hackers and foreign adversaries.”
Image from Flickr stream of Karlis Dambrans.