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Do the feds need Apple to bypass smartphone encryption?

Last week, I wrote in SearchCIO’s Searchlight news column about Apple’s opposition to a federal court order directing the company to give the FBI the tools to get into the iPhone used by Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the suspects in the San Bernardino, Calif., massacre in December.

A reader commented on the IT Knowledge Exchange blog that instead of forcing Apple to circumvent its smartphone encryption controls, the government should create its own lock-picking software.

The FBI wants to get at the information stored in the phone — texts, photos, maps — to see whether Farook or his wife, Tashfeen Malik — both killed by police after the shooting deaths of 14 people at the county health department where Farook worked — had connections to terrorist groups. Does it need Apple’s help, or can it use its own resources to unlock the device?

Layers of security

First, here’s the issue. The upgrades to Apple’s iOS operating system on the iPhone 5C, the model of the phone Farook used, encrypt all data on the phone, so even Apple can’t get to it — that is, without creating a special tool.

The FBI doesn’t have the password that is locking the phone, and investigators can’t just go guessing, because of a feature Farook could have enabled that would destroy all stored data once someone enters an incorrect password 10 times. Is it switched on? The FBI doesn’t know that, either.

Still, it might be possible for the FBI to access at least some of the data, said Khalid Kark, who works on Deloitte’s CIO research team.

“There’s a fairly good chance that if you put in the 10 passwords the data is going to be wiped,” he said. “But even if the data is wiped, there are actual physical-hardware ways to still capture the data or remnants of the data and piece it together.”

Tough going for the government

But accessing the data hidden behind an unknown password and Apple’s smartphone encryption would be a painstaking process, Kark said, and even “sophisticated hacking” by the government may not capture 100% of the information in the phone.

The FBI missed an opportunity to get a backup of the data. The Justice Department said the password was reset by the San Bernardino County health department, which owned the phone. If it were not reset, the information could have been backed up to Apple’s cloud. Apple said the government had the phone when the password was reset.

Avivah Litan, an analyst at market research outfit Gartner who specializes in cybersecurity, wasn’t optimistic about whether the feds could gain access to information on the phone.

“Only if they got the password from someone,” she said. That, though, is possible — if the FBI can find the right people. “Maybe they left behind friends that have their password. People tend to reuse passwords, so maybe they could.”