As the Apple vs. FBI Debate Rages, Congress Plots to Mandate Encryption Backdoors

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The more I read about the very public fight between Apple and the FBI, the more I become convinced the case merely represents the Lexington and Concord moment in a massive new crypto war. The surveillance state panopticon is extremely concerned that strong end to end encryption is increasingly being used in everyday consumer devices and applications, and has been scheming for a long time to figure out the best way to manipulate the public into accepting backdoor vulnerabilities.

To prove this point, I want to turn your attention to a few excerpts from an important Bloomberg article titled, Secret Memo Details U.S.’s Broader Strategy to Crack Phones:

Silicon Valley celebrated last fall when the White House revealed it would not seek legislation forcing technology makers to install “backdoors” in their software — secret listening posts where investigators could pierce the veil of secrecy on users’ encrypted data, from text messages to video chats. But while the companies may have thought that was the final word, in fact the government was working on a Plan B.

In a secret meeting convened by the White House around Thanksgiving, senior national security officials ordered agencies across the U.S. government to find ways to counter encryption software and gain access to the most heavily protected user data on the most secure consumer devices, including Apple Inc.’s iPhone, the marquee product of one of America’s most valuable companies, according to two people familiar with the decision.

The approach was formalized in a confidential National Security Council “decision memo,” tasking government agencies with developing encryption workarounds, estimating additional budgets and identifying laws that may need to be changed to counter what FBI Director James Comey calls the “going dark” problem: investigators being unable to access the contents of encrypted data stored on mobile devices or traveling across the Internet. Details of the memo reveal that, in private, the government was honing a sharper edge to its relationship with Silicon Valley alongside more public signs of rapprochement.

While not surprising, this is important information. While the Obama administration pretended publicly to be uninterested in encryption backdoors, it was scheming behind the scenes to figure out a way to achieve just that. This is how your government rolls.

On Tuesday, the public got its first glimpse of what those efforts may look like when a federal judge ordered Apple to create a special tool for the FBI to bypass security protections on an iPhone 5c belonging to one of the shooters in the Dec. 2 terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California that killed 14 people. Apple Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook has vowed to fight the order, calling it a “chilling” demand that Apple “hack our own users and undermine decades of security advancements that protect our customers.” The order was not a direct outcome of the memo but is in line with the broader government strategy.

Exactly. The San Bernardino fight didn’t come out of nowhere. The government thought it could use a terrorism case to set a precedent to get whatever it wants going forward. Fortunately, Tim Cook said enough is enough and very publicly took his case to the people.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Wednesday that the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Justice have the Obama administration’s “full” support in the matter. The government is “not asking Apple to redesign its product or to create a new backdoor to their products,” but rather are seeking entry “to this one device,” he said.

Security specialists say the case carries enormous consequences, for privacy and the competitiveness of U.S. businesses, and that the National Security Council directive, which has not been previously reported, shows that technology companies underestimated the resolve of the U.S. government to access encrypted data.

Please let there be no doubt when it comes to government’s resolve to spy on the citizenry.

Security experts say the U.S.’s insistence on finding ways to tap into encrypted data comes in direct conflict with consumers’ growing demands for privacy.

“The government’s going to have to get over it,” said Ken Silva, former technical director of the National Security Agency and currently a vice president at Ionic Security Inc., an Atlanta-based data security company. “We had this fight 20 years ago. While I respect the job they have to do and I know how hard the job is, the privacy of that information is very important to people.”

In addition to the demands against Apple, the FBI will almost certainly seek more money and expanded legal authorization to track suspects and access encrypted data, without the involvement of companies that make the technologies, several experts say. Intelligence services already have sophisticated tools for cracking encryption, and the White House’s efforts will likely lead to broader use of those techniques across the government, even in ordinary criminal investigations that don’t involve foreign intelligence or national security.

So the Obama administration thought they could easily set a precedent in the San Bernardino case and that Apple wouldn’t dare refuse since it’s a high profile terrorism case. Fortunately, they were wrong.

As should be obvious by now, this latest battle didn’t come out of nowhere. As the New York Times notes in its article, Apple’s Line in the Sand Was Over a Year in the Making:

WASHINGTON — Time and again after the introduction of the iPhone nearly a decade ago, the Justice Department asked Apple for help opening a locked phone. And nearly without fail, the company agreed.

Then last fall, the company changed its mind. In a routine drug case in a Brooklyn federal court, prosecutors sought a court order demanding that Apple unlock a methamphetamine dealer’s iPhone 5S running old, easy-to-unlock software. The company acknowledged that it could open the phone, as it had before. But this time, it pushed back.

“We’re being forced to become an agent of law enforcement,” the company’s lawyer, Marc Zwillinger, protested in court.

That stance foreshadowed this week’s showdown between the Obama administration and Apple over the locked iPhone belonging to one of the suspects in the San Bernardino, Calif., shooting rampage. By the time of Mr. Zwillinger’s statement, Apple and the government had been at odds for more than a year, since the debut of Apple’s new encrypted operating system, iOS 8, in late 2014.

With last October’s court filing, the confrontation became all but inevitable. The company left no doubt that it would fight any effort to crack its new, encrypted phones. The only real question was what crime the government would use to press its case.

Mr. Zwillinger said the drug case would be Apple’s line in the sand. “Customer data is under siege from a variety of different directions,” he said. “Never has the privacy and security of customer data been as important as it is now.” 

It was a delicate period for the Obama administration, which was focused on finding a way to break into the new encrypted iPhones. The F.B.I., in particular, was lobbying hard to win support for that idea in the face of skepticism from Silicon Valley, Congress and the public.

National security and criminal prosecutors argued that, with the introduction of the encrypted iOS 8, Apple (along with Google, which had started its own encrypted Android phone software) had made thumbing its nose at the government a business strategy. The only hope, these prosecutors argued, was a court fight or an act of Congress requiring companies to provide the government unencrypted data.

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4 Comments

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  1. Wake Up Little Sheeple

    Anyone who can’t see by now the USG is the real terrorist, is most definitely, mentally impaired.

  2. Ricardo Ali Fernandez

    Mike, great report. For sure protecting the fourth amendment is a number one priority.

  3. What everyone can do: 1) Start using something like Private Virtual Network or other product to routinely encrypt data within your Net connection at AES-256 or above; 2) use Startmail.com (headquartered in Europe) to have a totally easy to use email service not US based. Running a PVN through TOR might give you an added level of protection.

    Will it defeat dedicated hacking by the feds? No. But when enough people do it, it will so slow down the process to decrypt every message and Net query as to force them to concentrate on real enemies and not We The People.

    Do it.

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