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iPhone encryption battle FAQ

Apple’s war with the FBI explained.
Apple store black and white

Apple and US law enforcement have become locked in a very public battle about encryption and access to data on the company’s iPhones.

The case has moved well beyond a simple tussle between a major corporation and federal investigators, going to the heart of privacy on smartphones and tablets.

The story has had plenty of twists and turns, so if you’re feeling confused, read on and we’ll answer all the key questions.

When did this all start?

iPhone 6 plus landscape

Following a terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California last December which left 14 people dead, an iPhone belonging to Syed Farook, one of the people behind shootings, was discovered by the FBI.

Agents asked county officials, for whom Farook worked and whose iPhone was actually their property, to reset the device’s iCloud password.

This meant there was no auto back-up available on Apple’s iCloud servers, from where data can be legally requested.

Apple has complied with such legal demands in the past.

So what’s the problem?

It’s believed that information about the attack exists on Farook’s iPhone.

The issue is that without it being available on Apple’s iCloud servers, it can only be accessed by cracking the device’s passcode.

Apple was ordered to do so in February, but is fighting the demand.

Why can’t Apple just break the passcode?

Apple says it does not have the software to do so, saying it would need to create a special version of its iOS platform to give to federal investigators in order to hack into the handset.

In an open letter, Apple CEO Tim Cook said this would set a ‘dangerous precedent’, creating so–called backdoor access to iPhones.

What exactly did Cook say?

tim cook apple

In an open letter Cook wrote on February 16th he said the FBI "wants us to make a new version of the iPhone operating system, circumventing several important security features, and install it on an iPhone recovered during the investigation.

"In the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession.”

What does the FBI say?

Federal investigators claimed that Apple was using the case as a marketing tool.

Apple has strenuously denied this and the two are now locked in a court battle, as well as going to the US Congress to given evidence to lawmakers about the case.

The FBI is using a law called the All Writs Act, dating back to the 18th century, saying they need access to fully investigate the crime.

And how has Apple responded?

Giving evidence to Congress, Apple’s lawyer Bruce Sewell said: “Hackers and cyber criminals could use this to wreak havoc on our privacy and personal safety.

"Should the FBI be allowed to stop Apple, or any company, from offering the American people the safest and most secure product it can make?”

Is Apple standing on its own?

sundar pichai

Far from it.

Big name rivals such as Google's Sundar Pichai, Twitter and Facebook have all come out in support of Apple, saying they do not wish to see a weakening of encryption which they believe could be unconstitutional.

Who’s winning?

Apple scored a victory earlier this week after a New York judge ruled, in a separate case, that the FBI could not use the All Writs Act to access an iPhone.

While this does not have a direct bearing on this case, it’s likely to give Apple an upper hand in any future court battle.

What next?

After Congress’s hearings, the attention will shift to a court hearing on March 22nd.

Whoever wins, expect appeals to be made and this case to rumble on, with Cook likely to make mention of it at Apple’s upcoming iPhone SE launch event.

Category: News
Tagged: iphone, apple

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