According to the Boston Herald, the FBI is asking for an encrypted iPhone to be unlocked in a Boston case. That’s Boston, Massachusetts, literally a city on the other side of the country, possibly as far as one could get from San Bernardino within the contiguous 48 states.
If you’ve been living under a rock or some remote and placid Caribbean island nation until recently, here’s John Oliver on his show Last Week Tonight explaining the FBI vs. Apple encryption issue (as a HBO show, it employs not-so-safe language):
It should be noted that the Boston case does not involve terrorism but local gang activity. Furthermore, the FBI apparently has enough information to put away the perp in question:
In an affidavit, the FBI says it intercepted wiretapped phone conversations in which Crawford [the Boston gang member accused of being a triggerman] and another man talk about the March 27, 2015, shooting of a rival, as well as drug dealing. [bostonherald.com]
So, why is the FBI looking for Apple to unlock a phone if they already have legally obtained evidence that maintains a healthy distance from any trace of scandal? After all, asking for the phone to be decrypted by Apple at this point just looks like government overreach, an accusation that has been flying around for a while and seemingly crystallizing into fact in the public’s consciousness. Furthermore, it flies counter to FBI Director Comey’s observation regarding San Bernardino, that the FBI is asking Apple to unlock the phone just this once, just for this one phone.
FBI agent Matthew Knight wrote in support of the iPhone search that he believes information about the gang’s activities on the phone could lead them to “substantial evidence” regarding the sources of guns, drugs and accomplices. [bostonherald.com]
The Boston Herald article does not explain why Knight believes this. Did the suspect Crawford allude to evidence being in the phone? Or perhaps the “another man” who was wiretapped did? Or maybe Knight believes it the way I believe that peanut butter banana sandwiches are not all they’re cracked up to be – just because that’s how I feel.
And, you know, feelings are important.
So much for Comey’s observation. Based on this new development, one has to wonder whether anything being said by the FBI can be taken at face value.
FBI: What Are They Really Up To?
One has to wonder if this latest situation is a yet-to-be-understood masterstroke or the Boston FBI office bungling the situation or proof that the bureau’s tin-eared and ham-fisted or what. Most everyone thinks that the San Bernardino case is over decrypting a phone. It isn’t, if you’re looking into the nitty-gritty of it; but, in the public sphere, it is about decrypting a phone.
And within that sphere, the FBI Director has been telling anyone who would listen that it’s essentially a one-time thing. A second similar request showing up even before the first one has been resolved, or even allowed to somewhat cool down, does not look well. On the other hand, it could just be a result of Comey finally admitting that they’ve got many encrypted phones that they’d like to see decrypted.
It’s been a bad month for the FBI:
- Pretty much all tech companies have come out in support of Apple.
- Same goes for security professionals, scientists, and mathematicians (notably, one of the godfathers of encryption sided with the FBI…but only to point out that Apple made an elementary mistake).
- Ex-NSA and CIA honcho is also supporting Apple.
- Supposedly the NSA and DHS are not siding with the FBI because they don’t see any upside and much downside.
- FBI Director Comey made a less than stellar appearance in his congressional hearing: not only was he mistaken in some key aspects of his testimony, he didn’t have an expert at his side that could answer technical questions and answered with a string of “I don’t knows.” The representatives doing the questioning noticed this omission.
Overall, it doesn’t look good for the FBI. There are rumors that even the FBI is beginning to think they have misjudged how things would play out.
The thing is, the FBI is not wrong. They are within their legal rights to access protected data if they have a warrant. But, just like obtaining the legal right to arrest someone does not mean that someone will be arrested (a warrant is issued; suspect escapes to a non-extradition country), likewise encryption can stymie the government.
The FBI has had to use questionable methods. For example, since a suspect cannot (generally; exceptions exist) be compelled to provide passwords or encryption keys to encrypted data even with a warrant – it’s a Fifth Amendment issue – they’ve asked suspects to provide the decrypted version of encrypted data: the suspects type in the password themselves to encrypted laptops suspected of containing information the FBI wants.
What’s the difference? As a layman, I don’t see any…and some legal scholars must share that view since the suspects’ attorneys go to court over it. As far as I know, though, none of the cases actually saw their conclusion in court for one reason or another.
What is not in contention is that the government is welcome, once they’ve obtained clearance, to force their way in somehow. And trying to get help in that effort is well within their rights. Forcing someone to help…now that’s a different question:
Susan Landau, a security expert who has worked with Google and the National Security Agency, offered perhaps the most daring take of the lengthy hearing: the FBI needs to get real about technology and start trying harder to break encryption. “While the NSA has the right to break into a system, nobody ever guaranteed that it would be easy to do so,” she says. “The FBI needs to take a page from the NSA.” [theguardian.com]