Engineers at Apple are reportedly working on ways to close the iPhone security vulnerability at the heart of the company's current battle with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Apple is trying to boost iPhone security so it will never again find itself in the situation it currently faces, according to an article yesterday in The New York Times, citing people close to the company and security experts.
Acting on a request from the FBI, U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym issued a court order on February 16 compelling Apple to create software to help the FBI unlock content on an iPhone belonging to Syed Rizwan Farook. On December 2, Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, shot and killed 14 people at a holiday party in San Bernardino, California. The two were later killed by police.
With Apple's assistance, the FBI has been able to access iPhone data that Farook backed up to his iCloud account. However, the agency said it has been unable to unlock data stored on the phone itself, which was secured by a code known only to Farook.
Apple is fighting the court order, requiring it to develop software to prevent the phone's data from being wiped after 10 unsuccessful FBI attempts to break the device's security, and to turn off the phone's built-in time delays between such attempts.
'Software Equivalent of Cancer'
A person close to Apple said the company had started working on iPhone security improvements even before the December 2 attack, according to the Times. The article added that independent software security experts have spoken with Apple about possible solutions to its current predicament.
"There are probably 50 different ideas we have all sent to Apple," Jonathan Zdziarski, an iOS-based digital forensics and security expert, said in the article. Zdziarski has also commented extensively on the issue in his blog, noting earlier this week that "the backdoor FBI is ordering Apple to create is incredibly dangerous."
Apple CEO Tim Cook has voice a similar sentiment. In an exclusive interview with ABC News yesterday, he told "World News Tonight" anchor David Muir that the security workaround the FBI wants is the "software equivalent of cancer."
"If a court can ask us to write this piece of software, think about what else they could ask us to write -- maybe it's an operating system for surveillance, maybe the ability for the law enforcement to turn on the camera," Cook said in the interview. "I don't know where this stops. But I do know that this is not what should be happening in this country."
Hardest Question Ever in Government
During a hearing this morning before the U.S. House Intelligence Committee, FBI Director James Comey said the Apple controversy is "the hardest question I've ever seen in government." Comey also appeared before the House Appropriations Committee to present the agency's proposed $9.5 billion 2017 budget.
Reuters today also reported that it had obtained a recording of a conference call last week between Pym and attorneys in which the judge asked for the parties to address the technological issues in greater detail.
Critics of the FBI's actions have said its efforts appear to be aimed at setting a legal precedent. Although Comey has asserted the order would apply to Farook's phone only, news outlets have reported that Apple faces court requests from law enforcement authorities across the country to help them unlock data on at least 13 more iPhones and other Apple devices.