Apple vs. The FBI: A Broadcast of Ineptitude

It is an unusual thing to see the United States Government go to war with the American private sector. It is unprecedented for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to go to war with the most valuable company in the entire world, Apple, which also happens to be American.

This all began, publically at least, when two of what the FBI called “homegrown violent extremists,” (basically two radical Islamic terrorists acting alone) killed 14 people and injured more than twenty in a mass shooting. One of the perpetrators, Syed Farook, who slaughtered his own colleagues, had an iPhone 5c, which was recovered from the scene.

As the New York Times reported, The head of the FBI acknowledged on Tuesday that his agency lost a chance to capture data from the iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino attackers when it ordered that his password to the online storage service iCloud be reset shortly after the rampage. “There was a mistake made in the 24 hours after the attack,” James B. Comey Jr., Director of the FBI, told lawmakers at a hearing on the government’s attempt to force Apple to help ‘unlock’ the iPhone. FBI personnel apparently believed that by resetting the iCloud password, they could get access to information stored on the iPhone. Instead, the change had the opposite effect — locking them out and eliminating other means of getting in.

This was the FBI’s first mistake. Since February the FBI has endured a public relations nightmare by angering a majority of the tech community and a good portion of the American public. The controversy surrounded a court order compelling Apple to design new software to bypass its own encryption in order for authorities to access the device. Apple refused. It is not the first time. In 2015-2016 Apple has received more than ten court orders to bypass its own encryption based on a US law from 1789 (seriously).

This is a larger issue than simply unlocking an iPhone and is indicative of a larger problem. As recently wrote, “The government’s efforts to force Apple to help it unlock the San Bernardino iPhone have reignited a national debate about encryption, security and privacy that continues to rage two weeks after the Justice Department said it broke into the phone without Apple’s help.”

Here’s the real problem: It’s not that Apple has gotten too good at this; it is that the United States of America’s FBI cannot keep up. Apple is brilliant at PR. It makes very good and very secure products. What you are reading now was written on an Apple device. In the past Apple has been able to—for the most part—protect its users from the majority of viruses that plagued Microsoft devices, for instance. Now Apple is attempting, successfully, to protect its users from something else: advanced technology designed to bypass data encryption, which is generally either employed by governments or by advanced hackers.

In the case of Syed Farook’s iPhone an unknown outside group of hackers was hired to break into the phone for the FBI. By most accounts even the FBI does not know exactly how they did this. Nor, it seems, does Apple. There is an immense irony here. The FBI’s job is to protect the American people and their property. They don’t have the technology to do this, so they reach out to a foreign group of hackers to find a way into the iPhone. Meanwhile, Apple is trying to protect its customers all around the world from what it sees as an inherent right to privacy and property—something many believe the FBI should be doing—if only it could. Things have gotten a bit turned around.

The FBI now looks absolutely desperate, pitiful and inept. They are in charge of protecting the United States. They are the best and the brightest with the full resources of the US Government at their disposal, and they can’t figure out how to unlock a cell phone; to break a four digit code. What happened to America’s brilliant Cold War cryptology tradecraft?

Instead, the FBI has come off as publicly bullying Apple and publicizing the FBI’s ineptitude. Imagine- even 15 years ago, if the FBI could not recover information from a CD or DVD, they would not have publicly taken the CD manufacturer to court and broadcasted their inability to keep up with technological advancement.

For many in the United States, it seems like the guys who are supposed to be several steps ahead have fallen way behind. Of course, young talent has been drawn to Silicon Valley for a long time. But that’s no excuse for any government that attempts to play the global role that the United States has chosen to play.

At best it seems that the FBI and the White House have lost perspective and miscalculated the situation. They should be handling these issues in a more savvy way. At worst, they are currently broadcasting a message of weakness to a degree where if Apple is not intimidated, then imagine America’s enemies. FBI founder J. Edgar Hoover, as disgusting as he was, would be disgusted.

Will Cathcart

14 April 2016 19:48