The Worm in the Apple

Some time after David Bush lost his battle with cancer in Victoria, Canada, last August, his widow, Peggy Bush, sat down to play a game on their Apple iPad. But the game app stopped working and she couldn’t load it.

Her daughter Donna contacted Apple to retrieve the password.

A customer service rep asked for a copy of the death certificate and the will.

That was just the beginning. When the family called back with the requested information, Apple customer service said they didn’t have any record of the conversation. And they refused to release the password or reset the account without a court order.

From the ridiculous to the subslime, Apple’s concern over the personal privacy of its customers, dead or alive, has reached a new level.

Now even a court order and the FBI aren’t enough to get the smartphone password to break into the iPhone recovered from one of the terrorists who killed 14 and injured 22 in the San Bernardino, California, massacre last December.

Judge Sheri Pym has ordered Apple Inc. to help the FBI hack into an encrypted iPhone used by Syed Farook, who, with his wife, Tashfeen Malik, perpetrated the worst terror attack on U.S. soil since 9/11.

(In an interesting footnote, Farook didn’t purchase the phone. It was provided to him by San Bernardino County, where he worked as a government health inspector.)

Prosecutors don’t know whether there is any information on the phone that might lead to possible co-conspirators. But they can’t access the information because they don’t know the password and Apple won’t cooperate.

On the surface, this would seem to be a clear case of obstruction of justice. Indeed, Judge Pym relied on the 1789 All Writs Act, which requires a third party to aid law enforcement in an investigation.

But Apple’s CEO Tim Cook maintains that the government was trying to dangerously expand what the law requires a third party to do. Judge Pym’s order forces Apple to create and supply highly specialized software that the FBI can load onto the iPhone to bypass a feature that erases the phone’s data after too many unsuccessful attempts to guess the password.

Recognizing the need to protect other iPhone users, the judge said the software should include a “unique identifier” so that it can’t be used to unlock other phones.

But Apple refuses to let the government take a bite out of Farook’s iPhone.

In the post-Edward-Snowden privacy panic, the Obama administration encouraged strong encryption as a means of combatting hacking into personal information. Ironically, this was taking place at the same time that the administration was hacking into the phones of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, as well as those belonging to such security threats as leading Congressional supporters of Israel.

The FBI and other agencies have repeatedly warned about the dangers of what is known as “going dark” — the seeming sudden cessation of communication. Terrorists use encryption to go dark and hinder the Bureau from monitoring conversations. Even when they are authorized to intercept and access communications by court order, sometimes they just don’t have the technical ability.

FBI Director James Comey warned in July 2015 about encryption becoming a tool of terror. He said that ISIS typically broadcasts on Twitter to get people to follow them, then they move the followers to “an encrypted mobile-messaging app so they go dark to us.”

The ability to go dark eliminates much of the online “chatter” that the military and law enforcement relied on in the past to track terrorist activity and help prevent attacks.

Cook claims that the judge’s order would set a “dangerous precedent.” He said the company was being asked to take an “unprecedented step” that would threaten the security of Apple’s customers. Apple, Inc. defends its use of encryption as the only way to keep its customers’ personal data — their music, private conversations and photos — from being hacked.

Nowhere in Cook’s privacy concerns is any acknowledgement of the fact that whenever an iPhone user steps into a mall, the user is automatically targeted for ads from stores in the vicinity of the phone. Seemingly, it is only the government that is not allowed to track phones. But when it comes to marketers, the iPhone is freely used as a GPS tracking device to deliver customers to the shopping block.

Maybe what the FBI needs to do is develop an app to sell tchotchkes online. Once Apple gets their commission, they’ll gladly give the FBI anything they want. You just have to worm your way into the Apple.