Apple vs FBI: Encryption technology and the San Bernardino terrorist attack
Case 1 – Apple and the FBI
In 2013 Edward Snowden revealed that various state security agencies including the NSA in the US and GCHQ in Britain could access almost all the information held on any smartphone. Perhaps in response to this revelation, Apple developed new encryption technology for iOS 8 and later devices which prevented any outside access to users’ data. Despite legal objections, Apple continues to use encryption methods which cannot be read by the security services. On December 2nd 2015, 14 people were killed and 22 were seriously injured in a terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California. The terrorists had destroyed their personal phones immediately before the attack but one of them had also been issued with an Apple iPhone 5c by his employer which was recovered after the attack. The FBI had reason to believe that some information on this iPhone such as call history, internet history, and location tracing would be of great importance in preventing further acts of terrorism. However, they were unable to get into this phone because of Apple’s new security features.
On 9th February 2106, the FBI obtained a court order requiring Apple to unlock this phone by providing a new one-off iOS operating system which would allow them to use 1brute force methods to defeat the pin code without erasing all data after 10 attempts - as it can be set by the user to do. The FBI said this would be used once only to crack this particular phone and be destroyed afterwards. Apple repeatedly refused to comply with this order: stating that creating such a ‘trapdoor’ would encourage others to do the same and would not be consistent with their commercial goal of protecting their users’ information. On 16th February Apple CEO Tim Cook sent an online ‘letter’ to all Apple users explaining why the company was taking this position. Most tech companies in California sided with Apple in this debate but polls suggest that a majority of US citizens took the side of the FBI.
The US Department of Justice therefore filed a federal application to compel Apple to comply and Apple announced that it would fight the federal order in court. However, while legal preparations were being made, the FBI were approached by ‘a third party’ (assumed to be Cellebrite, the Israeli data-extraction specialists) and on 28th March 2016 announced that they had, with the help of this ‘third party’, successfully broken into the iPhone and no longer required assistance from Apple.
Case 2 – The loss of STS-107 Columbia
On January 16th 2003 during the launch of the Space Shuttle Columbia a piece of foam insulation broke off from the Shuttle external fuel tank and struck the left wing. On at least 4 previous launches of the space shuttle similar foam strikes had been observed and it was not considered a serious problem. Engineering and management views of the subsequent space flight differed in a manner highly reminiscent of the loss of STS-51-L Challenger. Engineers made three separate requests for US Department of Defense imaging of the shuttle in orbit to determine if there was any damage. While the images were not guaranteed to show the damage, the technical capability existed for imaging of sufficient resolution to provide meaningful examination. NASA management did not honour the requests and in some cases may actually have intervened to stop the Department of Defence from assisting. The exact details of these communications with the military currently remain classified. Risk assessment meetings came to the conclusion that the flight was not in danger. John Harpold, Director of Mission Operations reportedly said: “You know, there is nothing we can do about damage to the TPS (Thermal Protection System). If it has been damaged, it's probably better not to know. I think the crew would rather not know. Don't you think it would be better for them to have a happy successful flight and die unexpectedly during entry than to stay on orbit, knowing that there was nothing to be done, until the air ran out?”