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If You Don’t Read This The Terrorists Win

February 18, 2016

I heard about a sign on a local business that wasn’t what it first appeared to be. 

We’d rather serve 10,000 terrorists than one American soldier. . .

They have become the ultimate boogeyman: if we don’t __________ then the terrorists win. Who wouldn’t want to help stop terrorism? And yet, there’s one company that is standing up and saying: NO. We won’t help you stop terrorism. 

And they are right!

I drive a 20 year old car. It has an onboard computer, of course, but it’s not in the least “wired.” No OnStar. No lowjack for tracking it. No black box recording my speed and location. My cell phone is the only way someone could track my car. New cars, aren’t like my old Lexus. They are more and more plugged into the cloud. And I’m not even talking about the ones that drive themselves. 

Last summer a man and his dog became trapped in his 2007 Corvette. A cable came loose when he got in and it killed all the electronics including the windows, locks and the horn. The man couldn’t figure out how to manually unlock the doors. Tragically he and his dog died before anyone noticed he was in distress. 

One of the locks on my Lexus has become disconnected from the automatic locks. So, I have to remember to manually lock and unlock that door. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that old cars are better. (They are easier to fix.) But, I’m trying to point out that there’s a price to pay for that technology. Stuff breaks. If the broken stuff is in your house, you might need to fix it. If the broken stuff is “in the cloud” you might not even notice as criminals take advantage of your problem from half a world away. What does this have to do with terrorism?

The company that is refusing to help stop the terrorists is Apple. The terrorist who killed 12 people in San Bernardino last year had a cell phone. An Apple 5S according to reports. The terrorist put a PIN code on it. It’s locked. The FBI thinks there might be important information on it. They want Apple to unlock the phone. Apple is claiming they can’t. And that’s sorta true and kinda false. 

First, I need to set aside my personal belief, it’s almost a life motto, that all computer data is accessible. Google and Microsoft read your mail. Apple collects tons of data from your phone. Personally,  I believe Apple can get into any phone they want. However, Apple claims they cannot, and that’s important. Most people are not like me. Many people believe that computer data is private and not accessible. 

Apple needs to keep those people believing they don’t have a backdoor into your phone. And that’s exactly what the FBI is asking for; a backdoor into iPhones. They want Apple to update some something called firmware to include a backdoor and install it on the terrorist’s phone. Apple has refused. They claim that they do not have a backdoor. And that they didn’t build one because it would be too irresponsible. 

From a technical standpoint, what the FBI is asking for is pretty simple. You know that if you put the wrong PIN into your phone 10 times in a row, it will wipe the phone. At least you should know. My friend handed his 3 year old his locked phone to “play” with, knowing the child couldn’t unlock it, but forgetting about the 10 failed feature. It wiped his phone and on that phone were the pictures of a recent once in a lifetime trip to Europe. He no longer lets his three year old borrow his phone. 

The FBI knows that if they try to guess the PIN code for the terrorists, they will not be able to guess in ten tries. The phone will wipe and it’s bye bye to any incriminating evidence. They want Apple to disable that feature. Also, every time you fail to enter the PIN correctly, you have to wait a little longer before you can try again. The FBI wants that feature gone too. And finally, they want to be able to send PIN requests using a computer rather than a person having to manually enter each number. 

Their purpose is simple. They want to hack the phone by putting in every possible PIN code. It’s called a “brute force” attack. And with a six digit PIN there are only 100,000 possible combinations (Actually 99,999.) A computer could whip through that in no time at all.  The reason the FBI cannot do it is because Apple wrote the codespecifically to prevent that sort of attack. 

Could Apple rewrite their code to allow it? Absolutely. But, for those people who do trust technology companies, Apple would be admitting that your phone is not really secure. That given enough time and governmental force, they could hack into it. Knowing that is possible, and actually doing it, is the difference between having a nuclear weapon and using it. 

Apple has not committed any crime. They are not being accused of a crime. They are being forced to write software for the FBI. Why? Why should any company be forced to do the government’s bidding so the government can go check someone else for terrorist connections? 

Apple, is claiming that doing so would violate a trust they have with their customers. And it would. We all want to stop terrorists, well except that shop I mentioned at the beginning, but at what cost? It’s like the person who defends hate speech by saying, “I disagree with what you are saying, but will defend to the death, your right to say it.”

Apple should not forsake the security of the rest of us simply to give the FBI the chance to search someone’s cell phone. The cost is just too high. 

Oh, that company that wanted to serve 10,000 terrorists rather than a single American soldier? A funeral home. 

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday at 7:00 AM Mountain Time. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren. 

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(c) 2016 Rodney M Bliss, all rights reserved 

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