Apple ordered to backdoor San Bernardino shooter's iPhone

Apple must disable the auto-erase function and allow the FBI unlimited attempts to guess the password

broken iphone flickr copy
David (Creative Commons BY or BY-SA)

A federal judge in the Central District of California has ordered Apple to assist the FBI and help recover data from the San Bernardino shooter's iPhone. However, the court hasn't ordered Apple to remove encryption; they've ordered Apple to backdoor iOS.

The order, signed by U.S. Magistrate Sheri Pym, orders Apple to render reasonable technical assistance to law enforcement in order to "bypass or disable the auto-erase function whether or not it has been enabled."

In addition, Apple will also need to ensure that such a bypass will allow:

"...the FBI to submit passcodes to the SUBJECT DEVICE for testing electronically via the physical device port, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, or other protocol available on the SUBJECT DEVICE and (3) it will ensure that when the FBI submits passcodes to the SUBJECT DEVICE, software running on the device will not purposefully introduce any additional delay between passcode attempts beyond what is incurred by Apple hardware..."

One way Apple can render assistance would be to provide the FBI with a signed iPhone Software file, recovery bundle, or other Software Image File (SIF) that can be loaded onto the shooter's phone.

The SIF will load and run from RAM and not modify iOS, the user data partition, or system partition in flash memory.

From the court documents:

"The SIF will be coded by Apple with a unique identifier of the phone so that the SIF would only load and execute on the SUBJECT DEVICE. The SIF will be loaded via Device Firmware Upgrade ("DFU") mode, recovery mode, or other applicable mode available to the FBI. Once active on the SUBJECT DEVICE, the SIF will accomplish the three functions specified in paragraph 2. The SIF will be loaded on the SUBJECT DEVICE at either a government facility, or alternatively, at an Apple facility; if the latter, Apple shall provide the government with remote access to the SUBJECT DEVICE through a computer allowing the government to conduct passcode recovery analysis."

It's hard to believe Apple will keep silent on this issue, because they've just been ordered to do the very thing they've been fighting against for months – create a backdoor into their products for law enforcement usage.

The fact that such a backdoor is limited to a single agency or device doesn't really help the situation, because if it's done once, it can be done again, and again, and again.

Apple has five business days from February 16 to respond if they feel the order is "unreasonably burdensome."

Given that the court just asked them to disable a security feature that protects against the exact operation the FBI wants to attempt, odds are Apple is going to respond.

However, even if their hands are tied, it could take years to recover the password – assuming it isn't six random numbers. If there are letters and characters involved, the recovery process will slow to a crawl.

The full court order is online, thanks to Mike Masnick at Techdirt.

Update: Apple's Tim Cook has issued a public letter addressing the court's order. The letter starts by declaring that the order itself threatens the security of Apple customers, and "has implications far beyond the legal case at hand."

The bottom line, Apple is going to fight. IDG's John Ribeiro has more.

"We have great respect for the professionals at the FBI, and we believe their intentions are good. Up to this point, we have done everything that is both within our power and within the law to help them. But now the U.S. government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create. They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone.

"Specifically, the FBI wants us to make a new version of the iPhone operating system, circumventing several important security features, and install it on an iPhone recovered during the investigation. In the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession.

"The FBI may use different words to describe this tool, but make no mistake: Building a version of iOS that bypasses security in this way would undeniably create a backdoor. And while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control."


The government suggests this tool could only be used once, on one phone. But that’s simply not true. Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices. In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks — from restaurants and banks to stores and homes. No reasonable person would find that acceptable.

The government is asking Apple to hack our own users and undermine decades of security advancements that protect our customers — including tens of millions of American citizens — from sophisticated hackers and cybercriminals. The same engineers who built strong encryption into the iPhone to protect our users would, ironically, be ordered to weaken those protections and make our users less safe.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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