Essays on Technology and Culture

Apple and the FBI: The Worst Case Scenario

The Apple/FBI comedy of errors continues, and it’s likely to end up being argued in court. This means there is a possibility—following appeals and other legal maneuvering—that Apple will be compelled to write a tool to unlock iPhone encryption. This wouldn’t be just for one iPhone 5C, but for every iPhone.

Let’s get hypothetical for a moment. Suddenly, there is a single piece of software—a master key for nearly a billion iPhones. Can you imagine what people would pay for access to this? There would be governments and security firms swarming every iOS developer at Apple, and every digital forensics person in the FBI, with promises of untold riches—that is, if someone doesn’t leak it for free, first. There’s a non-zero chance that someone within Apple, or within the FBI, would make a copy of this software and put it on a Warez IRC channel or a torrent of it on The Pirate Bay. I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened inside of a day. And you can bet that whatever way it gets out, it will never be contained.

If you don’t believe this, know that it’s happened before. Microsoft COFEE, a forensics tool for Windows PCs, was leaked in 2009. A leaked tool called EPPB which can download a user’s complete iCloud backup was implicated in the iCloud nude photos leak. What makes anyone think an iOS master key would be any different? Apple may have the right to keep, and even destroy the software, but that isn’t a defense of it being leaked during the investigation. If someone can leak 3D models of the TSA master keys, nothing is safe.

And if it leaks, there will be teams of hackers working to reverse engineer the code. Most of them will working out of sheer curiosity, not because they want to crack into people’s iPhones. That’s just what hackers do. Some, however, will do it out of malice—or just a paycheck. Look at the iOS Jailbreak community. Every time Apple locks down iOS, Jailbreakers manage to break it open again, with all the security risks that entails. Anything Apple is forced to do by the FBI will probably be a lot easier to run, and easier to spread. What happens then? Now, there’s a cat and mouse game as Apple tries to keep iOS locked down from the US government, foreign governments, and black hat hackers with their own copy of the master key.

This is the worst case scenario in the Apple vs FBI fracas: an official backdoor into iOS, precedent for the FBI, the NSA, and other governments to demand Apple—and any other technology company—decrypt their phones. On top of that, the same backdoor will have a million lock-pickers trying to turn it into a master key for close to a billion iPhones.

If Apple loses this fight, be afraid. Be very afraid.