Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

The FBI Is Trying to Weaken Encryption Again

Pete Williams, NBC News:

The FBI is asking Apple Inc. to help unlock two iPhones that investigators think were owned by Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, the man believed to have carried out the shooting attack that killed three people last month at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida.

In a letter sent late Monday to Apple’s general counsel, the FBI said that although it has court permission to search the contents of the phones, both are password-protected. “Investigators are actively engaging in efforts to ‘guess’ the relevant passcodes but so far have been unsuccessful,” it said.

The letter, from FBI General Counsel Dana Boente, said officials have sought help from other federal agencies, as well as from experts in foreign countries and “familiar contacts in the third-party vendor community.” That may be a reference to the undisclosed vendor that helped the FBI open the locked phone of Syed Farook, the gunman who attacked a city meeting in San Bernardino, California, in 2015. The Justice Department took Apple to court in an effort to get the company to help the FBI open that phone.

Thomas Brewster, Forbes:

The U.S. government also has access to many tools that can help acquire data from iPhones, Androids and myriad other mobile devices. For instance, Cellebrite tools and Grayshift’s GrayKey have long been able to grab data from iPhones, and the FBI is one of many agencies that own hacking tech from both.

Forbes recently obtained a search warrant from Ohio, signed off on in October 2019, showing an FBI-owned GrayKey was able to extract data from an iPhone 12.5, though no device exists (neither does iOS 12.5). In the search warrant application, the government doesn’t specify what model of iPhone it was, but an image shows it has three camera lenses on the back of the device. Only Apple’s top of the range iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max models have three cameras. Though it’s not clear the iPhone was locked prior to being search by the FBI, a photo of the front of the device shows it on a locked screen with a handful of missed calls.

“iPhone12,5” is the model identifier for the iPhone 11 Pro Max in this warrant, which is unrelated to the Pensacola case. It’s news alone that the GrayKey can unlock the newest iPhone models.

As with the San Bernardino case, Apple says that it is cooperating with authorities. But, unlike that case, the FBI hasn’t yet tried to legally compel Apple into, for example, creating a special version of iOS that has no restrictions on passcode attempts. As with that case, it would set a troubling precedent that encryption should be weakened. So far, there is simply no practical or realistic way of doing so without breaking every user’s security.