If you thought the battles over plausible deniability, public image, and rights and responsibilities related to hacking people’s phones ended when the FBI paid hackers a million dollars to unlock the San Bernardino shooter’s phone, think again.
The ostensible PR and political war between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Apple Inc. has been a long and sordid saga. While the feud was thrust into the spotlight following the San Bernardino mass shooting last December, when Apple made headlines for refusing to bypass security on a phone used by one of the suspects, it goes back further than that.
In late March the story took an ironic turn, as both Apple and the FBI’s efforts collapsed in failure. The FBI, unable to crack the phone on its own or to persuade Apple to do so, reportedly paid at least $1.3 million to hire third-party hackers who found “at least one previously unknown software flaw” in the Apple phone. Ouch. That doesn’t exactly leave either Apple or the FBI with bragging rights for a successful public relations campaign.
Indeed, it is interesting to ponder just what respectively motivated the bureau and the company in their dispute, given that apparently disingenuous posturing regarding the original premises of the argument has been revealed on both sides. FBI Director James Comey has admitted his understanding that ordering Apple to unlock the phone would have, in fact, likely set a precedent for later cases, contrary to views he previously expressed (the Apple case was dropped after the phone was unlocked).
There are also compelling reasons to question whether Apple has been entirely straightforward in justifying its refusal of the FBI’s requests from the start. While a court order for Apple to unlock the phone would’ve likely set legal precedent, Apple could have just voluntarily helped the FBI, which would have seemed to make sense in a case that involved the murder of 14 people in a terrorist attack.
Whether or not the FBI was really as baffled and helpless as they portrayed themselves in the San Bernardino iPhone case, it’s certainly known that the bureau has extensive hacking capabilities. Details are sketchy, but for many years the FBI has had the capability to do things like hack computers and log keystrokes using programs with names like Carnivore and Magic Lantern. Indeed, similar tools are becoming increasingly accessible, and not only to government, as the FBI recently acknowledged in an advisory regarding a wireless keylogger made to look like a USB charger which has actually been around for over a year.
Those of us without the proper security clearances may have little chance of discovering the full extent of federal law enforcement’s current hacking powers, but it’s known that they are hungry for more. The Supreme Court in late April approved changes to Rule 41 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, which will massively expand the government’s surveillance and hacking capabilities unless Congress takes action to prevent the rule from taking effect in December. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has denounced the rule changes, and Senators Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) last week introduced a bill they’re calling the Stop Mass Hacking Act to prevent them from coming into effect.
Meanwhile, it was reported yesterday that Apple has re-hired Jon Callas, a cryptography expert who formerly worked for the company and is a co-founder in his own right of the encrypted communications companies PGP Corporation and Silent Circle. Callas is reportedly opposed to the government being able to compel companies to break their own encryption.
“But he has also said he supports a compromise proposal under which law enforcement officials with a court order can take advantage of undisclosed software vulnerabilities to hack into tech systems, as long as they disclose the vulnerabilities afterwards so they can be patched,” according to Reuters. How Callas may facilitate such a compromise proposal, or what, exactly, he will be doing for Apple, is unclear.
“Apple declined to detail his new role,” Reuters reports, “and Callas declined to comment.”