While US President Donald Trump thinks it's too early to discuss gun control in the wake of Sunday's Texas church massacre – America's latest mass shooting – his Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is just fine exploiting the murder-suicide of 26 people to push for backdoors.
Specifically, a backdoor so investigators can forcibly and easily unlock devices, decrypting and presenting the information they contain on demand.
Speaking at a breakfast meeting with biz leaders in Linthicum, Maryland, Rosenstein said the FBI had the shooter's phone, understood to be an iPhone, in their possession but were unable to unlock it to view the contents. Preventing agents from accessing devices in criminal investigations should not be allowed, he argued.
"No reasonable person questions our right, and obligation, to access the phone," Rosenstein said today.
"But the company that built it purposely designed the operating system so that we cannot access it. Maybe we will find a way to get into that phone, as we did in the San Bernardino case, but it's going to cost a great deal of time and money, and in some cases it costs us lives. We need to find a solution to deal with warrant-proof encryption."
In other words, Rosenstein wants to avoid the previous court battles with moneybags Apple, and just lean on the iGiant hard enough to make it unlock the killer's cellphone. Right now is not a good time for tech giants, given all the headlines of fake news and Russian-bought political ads that Apple has largely distanced itself from but is still tarnished by it simply by being another rich Silicon Valley beast.
Meanwhile, Apple has said it offered to help the Feds in researching the case before the agency even approached Cupertino. The iGiant also kindly offered to throw its lawyers at any legal demand from the FBI as fast as it could to get the whole thing over and done with as soon as possible.
"Our team immediately reached out to the FBI after learning from their press conference that investigators were trying to access a mobile phone," Apple said in a statement to journalists.
"We offered assistance and said we would expedite our response to any legal process they send to us. We work with law enforcement every day. We offer training to thousands of agents so they understand our devices and how they can quickly request information from Apple."
Pattern of incompetence
If the iPhone is a recent one, the FBI could have unlocked the dead murderer's handset using his finger, if the phone was set up to accept fingerprint logins. Assuming the device had a suitably configured fingerprint sensor, FBI had a 48-hour window to use the prints to unlock the mobe. After that time period, a passcode is required which they don't have. The fact the Feds only started complaining about not being able to access the phone two days after the mass shooting indicates that either the phone didn't use fingerprint locking or agents missed their chance.
It was a similar story with the case of the San Bernardino shooter. There, hours after the shooting, the killer's employer – working local FBI agents – changed his iCloud password. This gave them access to his backups, but locked them out of getting further data from the phone. Apple argued it couldn't easily unlock the handset due to the encryption system used, and in any case, was unwilling to be forced into producing software tools for the US government to break into devices on demand.
The FBI has almost 7,000 phones in its possession that it can't get into. You have to wonder why it, and Rosenstein, always chooses the terrorist cases to push their argument that Uncle Sam needs backdoor access to encrypted communications and data at rest.
They also never mention that the best minds in the field of cryptography have repeatedly stated that it is mathematically impossible to introduce a backdoor that's only accessible by crime investigators into a truly end-to-end secure system: someone else will find the back passage and abuse it to decrypt people's stuff. The NSA agrees, probably because it knows that if a backdoor were mandated the Russians and Chinese would make it a priority to find and exploit it.