FBI Scores a Hollow Victory in Apple iPhone Unlocking Fight

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The FBI won what amounts to a hollow victory in its fight to force Apple to break its own iPhone encryption. A Federal Judge in Boston an order compelling Apple to help recover data from an iPhone, but stopped short of forcing the company to break its own encryption or hack the lockscreen passcode, effectively telling the company to do exactly what it already does to help out law enforcement agencies.

Court orders Apple to do what it already does to help FBI investigationsCourt orders Apple to do what it already does to help FBI investigations

Federal Magistrate Judge Marianne Bowler's order stated,

To the extent that data on the device is encrypted, Apple may provide a copy of the encrypted data to law enforcement but Apple is not required to attempt to decrypt, or otherwise enable law enforcement's attempts to access any encrypted data.

The order was unsealed after the American Civil Liberties Union filed a request to see the records in a Boston case where the FBI obtained a warrant forcing Apple to find and provide the unlock codes for an iPhone 6 Plus seized from Columbia Point Dawgz gang member Desmond Crawford. The order was similar to one the FBI was granted in the San Bernardino mass shooting case, although this one didn't specifically state Apple needed to create a hackable version of iOS.

Apple already routinely helps law enforcement agencies with valid warrants recover data from iPhones and iPads, although that doesn't include data that's encrypted on devices. Apple can, however, hand over unencrypted data from iCloud backups.

The company doesn't have a way to bypass lockscreen passcodes, nor does it have a backdoor into encrypted data. Without altering iOS in a way that significantly reduces security features, Apple—and by extension, the government—doesn't have any way to decrypt the data on our iPhones and iPads.

The exception is a hack the FBI bought from an unnamed company to get at the encrypted contents of the San Bernardino shooter's iPhone. In that case, the FBI used a technique they aren't disclosing, and while Apple doesn't know what it is, the expectation is that the exploit will be blocked soon.

The FBI's ongoing fight to strip away security in the name of protecting security hasn't panned out for the agency yet. The San Bernardino fight was dropped before a the court could rule on the order, a Federal Judge in New York refused a similar request, and now the Federal Judge in Boston issued an order telling Apple to do what it already does.

Despite the lack of a definitive win so far, the FBI isn't giving up its crusade for backdoors into our private and encrypted data. Apple and other tech companies, along with rights groups and end users, need to stay vigilant or face seeing the FBI's hollow victories become more substantial.

[Thanks to The Hill for the heads up]

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