Apple fights FBI on hacking terrorist’s phone

Federal investigators in the USA have seized the iPhone of a man who launched a deadly terrorist attack. A court has ordered Apple to help them hack into it, but the company is resistant.

On Wednesday 2 December, the employees of the San Bernardino public health department in California were enjoying their Christmas party. But when Syed Farook and his wife arrived, they unleashed a terrorist attack.

They shot 14 people dead. When the police killed them, they found they had stockpiled thousands of rounds of ammunition and 12 pipe bombs.

Afterwards, the FBI took Farook’s iPhone and gained a warrant to search it. Apple gave them data from the iCloud, but it showed nothing from the seven weeks before the attack.

Investigators say the phone may have ‘critical communications’ which could shed light on Farook’s motives and contacts. But nobody can access them. Apple’s encryption technology slows down anyone trying lots of combinations of the passcode and will delete the phone’s data after 10 incorrect entries.

The FBI is now asking Apple to override these mechanisms, so it can open the phone by ‘brute force’. ‘Maybe the phone holds the clue to finding more terrorists. Maybe it doesn’t,’ said FBI Director, James Comey, on Sunday. ‘But we can’t look the survivors in the eye, or ourselves in the mirror, if we don’t follow this lead.’

Last week, a court ordered Apple to comply with the FBI’s request. And yesterday, a lawyer for the victims said he would file a legal brief demanding their cooperation.

But the company is contesting the order, saying it requires them to make a new version of the phone’s operating system to bypass its security features. ‘In the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession,’ CEO Tim Cook said on Sunday.

Apple strengthened their security measures after revelations in 2013 that the US government had attempted to collect data by hacking their software. The company has gained the support of technology giants including Google, Facebook and Twitter. And cybersecurity expert John McAfee has offered to hack the phone himself.

Apples and oranges

Apple must comply, say some; they owe it to those who were murdered in California. This is a simple issue of national security — the information on the phone could save many innocent lives. The FBI’s case has been ratified by a judge. And Apple’s arguments to the contrary are absurd; this is about one very particular set of circumstances.

It would set a terrible precedent, respond others. The government is bullying an independent company to create something which could destroy the unique attraction of their own products. The decision may expose the data of every iPhone user on the planet, and it could be a security catastrophe: it only takes one person to put the technology in the wrong hands.

You Decide

  1. Would you be willing to create the technology which could hack Syed Farook‘s phone?
  2. Should Apple be forced to comply with the FBI’s request?


  1. Draw a cartoon illustrating the battle between Apple and the FBI.
  2. Write a short speech on behalf of either the FBI Director, James Comey, or Apple CEO Tim Cook, explaining your position on this issue.

Some People Say...

“No principle is more significant than security.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Doesn’t this only affect a dead terrorist?
Not necessarily. Security information gleaned from the phone might stop another terrorist attack and save lives. But if Apple is right that the technology could fall into the wrong hands, any owner of an iPhone could be affected. And if Apple complies with the court order a precedent will be set requiring other companies to allow similar access to data.
What legal authority did the court have?
The judge referred to the All Writs Act, which was written in 1789, just a year after the US Constitution was ratified. This authorises courts to issue writs to help government bodies to carry out their duties. This can only be done if the measure is judged necessary and appropriate and there is no other means available to achieve the outcome intended.

Word Watch

Terrorist attack
Both attackers pledged allegiance to Daesh (the Islamist terrorist group also known as Islamic State) on Facebook before the attack.
21 were also wounded.
Farook’s phone was Apple’s iPhone 5C model.
Slows down
Apple say someone trying every combination of the passcode would take five and a half years to open the phone.
Brute force
This involves trying every possible combination of the passcode until the phone opens. Farook had a four-digit passcode, meaning there are 10,000 possible combinations.
This was a US federal district court. But Apple’s challenge could mean the decision is the beginning of a lengthy legal wrangle, with the case potentially going as far as the Supreme Court.
Among the information in documents revealed by former National Security Agency employee Edward Snowden, who fled the USA and has since claimed asylum in Russia.
John McAfee
McAfee, who is running for president as a Libertarian party candidate, said of the court’s decision: ‘This is a black day and the beginning of the end of the US as a world power’.

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