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US Government and Big tech on collision course over backdoor entry

Attorney General William Barr has suggested Apple has not offered ‘material’ assistance as authorities investigate the deadly shooting which took place at a Pensacola naval base last month.

Although Apple disputes the claim from Barr, the conflict between the firm and the Attorney General’s office sets the technology industry on a collision course with the Government. Barr seems to be calling for backdoors to be build into digital products and services, a move which has been robustly opposed by the technology industry.

“We have asked Apple for their help in unlocking the shooter’s iPhones,” Barr said during a press conference. “So far Apple has not given us any substantive assistance.

“This situation perfectly illustrates why it is critical that investigators be able to get access to digital evidence once they have obtained a court order based on probable cause. We call on Apple and other technology companies to help us find a solution so that we can better protect the lives of Americans and prevent future attacks.”

Apple rejects the statement and has claimed it has assisted in the investigation.

“We reject the characterization that Apple has not provided substantive assistance in the Pensacola investigation,” Apple said in a statement.

“Our responses to their many requests since the attack have been timely, thorough and are ongoing. We responded to each request promptly, often within hours, sharing information with FBI offices in Jacksonville, Pensacola and New York. The queries resulted in many gigabytes of information that we turned over to investigators. In every instance, we responded with all of the information that we had.”

Apple has not unlocked the devices, but there are ways and means to access some information without doing so. The firm has assisted authorities through data taken from the iCloud (for example) in other cases.

Over the first six months of 2019, Apple received numerous requests from the US Government for customer information and data. The table below outlines the requests.

Request type Requests received Percentage where data was provided
Device 4,796 84%
Financial Identifier 918 81%
Account Identifier 3,619 90%
Emergency 206 90%

For devices, the Government is requesting device identifiers such as serial number or IMEI number. Examples of financial identifiers are credit card or gift card information. The account identifier could be the customers Apple ID or email address. And ‘Emergency’ describes requests received from a government agency seeking customer data in an emergency matter.

The Apple statement also reiterated its position on privacy:

“We have always maintained there is no such thing as a backdoor just for the good guys. Backdoors can also be exploited by those who threaten our national security and the data security of our customers.”

This is an argument which has reared its head numerous times, and it does appear the pieces are falling into place for it to do so once again.

Apple has regularly been a critic of Governments for refused to enable police and intelligence agencies access to phones. In 2015, Apple defied a court order to assist the FBI by unlocking an iPhone which belonged to one of two terrorists who killed 14 people in San Bernardino. The firm has regularly used the argument of privacy in defending its actions, seemingly not wanting to create precedent for future cases.

And while these two cases have focused on the security measures embedded on devices, the services industry has also found itself in conflict in a very similar fashion.

Over the course of 2017, the then-Home Secretary Amber Rudd launched a sustained attack on the technology industry in an attempt to force the creation of backdoors into messaging services such as WhatsApp. The prevention of terrorism and paedophilia was used as justification to break down the defences offered by end-to-end encryption, but industry refused demands to create backdoors to circumnavigate the security features.

Rudd even went as far as to state users do not care about security, but use these messaging applications for simplicity and convenience.

Barr is not taking the same simple-minded and short-sighted approach as Rudd, but this could be viewed as a challenge. What we could see over the coming months is the US Government heading into conflict with the technology industry once again over access to data on secured products and in encrypted services.

What is worth noting is that there are very valid arguments on both sides of the fence. Governments and regulators should be entitled to enlist the assistance of the technology industry in combatting crime, whereas the technology industry should also be able to draw a line through ideas which would create collateral damage.

The creation of backdoors and designed weaknesses in security features is not something which should be considered. Technology companies, whether software or hardware, have designed security features to be robust enough that not even the manufacturer or developer can circumnavigate them. This ensures security but also prevents abuse.

If backdoors are inserted, this is vulnerability by design. It is effectively waving a red-flag in front of the hacker community, inviting them to find the weakness. Accessing an individual’s phone or WhatsApp account will offer reward for hackers, and whether by accident or design, the vulnerability will be eventually found and exploited.

This is not a viable solution for the sustained health of the digital economy, but this fact directs Big Tech and the US Government on another collision course over access. This is a battle which has been fought before and won by no-one, but it is once again on th

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