The FBI’s iPhone Backdoor Would Compromise Security For Everyone

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.


The FBI wants Apple to produce a special version of its iPhone operating system that will allow them to hack into the phone of Syed Farook, one of the San Bernardino terrorists. They’ve generally been trying to portray this as a limited request that applies to just one case, but in testimony before Congress today they acknowledged explicitly that this isn’t true:

FBI Director James B. Comey appeared first, and while the Justice Department has tried to cast the issue as narrowly focused on one iPhone, he acknowledged early in the hearing that if the government succeeds in this case it could set a precedent for other cases.

….Comey acknowledged in his testimony Tuesday afternoon that this case could potentially set a precedent, pointing out that the same could be true of the ruling a day earlier in New York. “That’s just the way the law works, which I happen to think is a good thing,” he said.

If the federal government prevails here, Comey said they could go back and seek assistance in unlocking other devices in the future. But he also said that the larger questions about balancing encryption and the needs of law enforcement would not be resolved by a decision here.

This is the fundamental problem. When most people think about a “backdoor” for an encrypted device, they picture a master password of some kind. The danger, of course, is that if one person has that password, someone else might be able to get hold of it too.

But backdoors come in lots of flavors. The FBI wants a special version of iOS that allows them to try thousands of passcodes without bricking the phone. But engineers have to write that code. It gets stored in Apple’s version control system. Maintenance engineers update it when new iPhones come out. Librarians keep track of it. Other librarians make sure it’s backed up. That’s a lot of people who know how to access a very valuable piece of code. How safe do you think it would  be?

No telling. And even if you trust Apple’s legendary security, how about Microsoft’s? Or Google’s? Or Samsung’s? Once you build a backdoor, you’ve compromised security for everyone. This is the problem Congress has to deal with.

TIME IS RUNNING OUT!

We have an ambitious $350,000 online fundraising goal this month and it's truly crunch time: About 15 percent of our yearly online giving usually comes in during the final week of the year, and in "No Cute Headlines or Manipulative BS," we explain why we simply can't afford to come up short right now.

The bottom line: Corporations and powerful people with deep pockets will never sustain the type of journalism Mother Jones exists to do. And advertising or profit-driven ownership groups will never make time-intensive, in-depth reporting viable.

That's why donations big and small make up 74 percent of our budget this year. There is no backup to keep us going, no alternate revenue source, no secret benefactor. If readers don’t donate, we won’t be here. It's that simple.

And if you can help us out with a donation right now, all online gifts will be matched thanks to an incredibly generous matching gift pledge.

payment methods

TIME IS RUNNING OUT!

We have an ambitious $350,000 online fundraising goal this month and it's truly crunch time: About 15 percent of our yearly online giving usually comes in during the final week of the year, and in "No Cute Headlines or Manipulative BS," we explain why we simply can't afford to come up short right now.

The bottom line: Corporations and powerful people with deep pockets will never sustain the type of journalism Mother Jones exists to do. And advertising or profit-driven ownership groups will never make time-intensive, in-depth reporting viable.

That's why donations big and small make up 74 percent of our budget this year. There is no backup to keep us going, no alternate revenue source, no secret benefactor. If readers don’t donate, we won’t be here. It's that simple.

And if you can help us out with a donation right now, all online gifts will be matched thanks to an incredibly generous matching gift pledge.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate