Stephen R. Flatley, Senior FBI forensic examiner, spoke at the International Conference on Cyber Security this week. During his time at the podium, Flatley took some time to discuss the FBI’s tension with Apple regarding the company’s opinions on smartphone encryption.
He described the company as “jerks” and “evil geniuses” for creating iOS device encryption that is so powerful as to prevent Apple itself from entering users’ iPhones. He says that the latest updates in Apple’s encryption efforts have made guessing passwords much more difficult, even for law enforcement and the equipment it uses to hack into devices. He said the hash iterations have increased from 10 thousand to 10 million, “making his and his colleagues’ investigative work harder.”
Apple’s worked hard to make his life hell
Flatley’s comments don’t really come as a surprise. Two years ago, Apple’s fight for encryption and privacy began after a federal judge ordered Apple to help the FBI enter the iPhone owned by Syed Farook, one of the shooters in the attacks in San Bernardino in December 2015.
Apple’s argument was that if it created a software to hack into the device, it could become a “master key” and be used to enter any iOS-powered device by the government, thus ridding users of the privacy the company feels they’re entitled to. The company refused the request, and CEO Tim Cook wrote an open letter to inform others of the “dangerous precedent” it would set if it went along with the request. After fighting back-and-forth for a few months, the government was able to get into the device with help from Cellebrite, an Israeli firm known for its ability to hack into very secure devices.
Flately mentioned Cellebrite during the security conference, too. He described the firm as “another evil genius” that counters Apple’s encryption and can help the FBI when it needs to enter a smartphone. According to reporters, Flatley did not clearly state Cellebrite’s name, but facetiously coughed at the same time to somewhat obscure the comment.
The ongoing battle
In October 2017, it was reported that the FBI was unable to get into over 6,900 devices it had tried to access over the previous year. That number was over 50% of the total devices the bureau had obtained. FBI Director Christopher Wray described the FBI’s inability to retrieve information from these devices as a “huge, huge problem.”
Apple released its own statement in 2016, claiming it would help the FBI when it could, but not at the expense of lack of security for its devices and users. “Apple believes deeply that people in the United States and around the world deserve data protection, security, and privacy. Sacrificing one for the other only puts people and countries at greater risk.”