Diane Dimond: The iPhone: Public enemy No. 1?
In this corner: the FBI, which says that all high-tech company Apple cares about is protecting its mega-profits and not the nation’s security.
And in that corner: Apple, which says the feds will put everyone’s privacy in jeopardy if a court forces them to disable password protection on the iPhone of dead terrorist Syed Rizwan Farook. Farook and his wife shot to death 14 of his San Bernardino County co-workers last December and seriously wounded 22.
There might be valuable information on Farook’s phone, information that could help thwart future terrorist attacks. Then again, maybe there’s nothing on that phone at all. Both sides say it’s the principle of the issue at stake.
Welcome to the war on crime’s newest battlefield: high-tech cellphones, the latest incarnation of which Apple developed with the uncrackable operating system known as iOS 8. Even armed with a search warrant, authorities cannot access information on these phones because Apple deliberately designed them so there is no way around their encryption.
John Miller, New York City’s counterterrorism chief, has groused about Apple’s controversial iPhone product.
“You are actually providing aid to the kidnappers, robbers and murderers who have been recorded on the telephones in Riker’s Island (prison) telling their compatriots on the outside, ‘You gotta get iOS 8. It’s a gift from God’ — and that’s a quote — ‘because the cops can’t crack it.'”
This cyber conundrum frustrates law enforcement officials and prosecutors nationwide. In Manhattan, the NYPD cyber lab has some 200 of these iPhones, perhaps chock-full of incriminating information cops could use to bring criminals to justice.
In California, the LA county sheriff has at least 150 phones that detectives believe could aid in criminal investigations. The LAPD reports they have about 300. The sheriff in Sacramento has nearly 90 of these untouchable pieces of potential evidence.
But imagine the dilemma faced by District Attorney Hillar Moore of East Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He says he doesn’t just think there is evidence on the phone that belonged to murder victim Brittney Mills; he knows it.
Mills, 29, was nearly nine months pregnant when she was shot dead on her doorstep last April. Her mother, Barbara Mills, told police her daughter was being harassed and had turned to her iPhone to chronicle her troubles.
“She told me the negative things that happened to her she put on her phone, in a diary,” Barbara said. “She kept a diary on her phone.”
Almost a year later, the DA has not found the person responsible for the Mills double murder. (Mills’ child was delivered but died a week later.) In addition, Moore says, he’s got another 60 impenetrable iPhones waiting in an evidence locker, symbols of today’s crime-fighting challenge.
“We can get into a bank’s safe,” Moore told NBC News. “The biggest baddest safe you want to make … (but) not a locked phone. I can beat that phone to death but I’m not going to get what I want out of that phone.”
There is another side to the controversy. Apple says what the feds want is for their engineers to write new software that would create a backdoor to iPhones so the government can peek in at will.
Apple Vice President Craig Federighi, said, “Once created, this software … would become a weakness that hackers and criminals could use to wreak havoc on the privacy and personal safety of us all.”
Can you imagine the damage, say, a cyber-savvy terror group could unleash if it won the clandestine bidding war for this encryption-busting software? A pathway into tens of millions of iPhones creates predictable targets: those in control of the nation’s power grid, the water supply or sensitive government computer systems. Apple has a point.
There’s got to be a balance struck. Apple holds all the cards, as it is the only entity on the planet that knows the secrets about how it all works. But remember, law enforcement is our front line against criminals — including murderers, gang members, even purveyors of child porn — and their secrets are often stored on their iPhones. How to reconcile the two sides?
Perhaps Apple develops the software and, together with the feds, it is protected like Fort Knox. Maybe a special cyber court panel convenes to decide which phones hold verifiable potential for solid information. Or maybe the government gets smart and hires its own computer geniuses to figure out a way in to suspects’ iPhones. Nothing is perfect — not even Apple.