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John Oliver, others weigh in on Apple-FBI encryption fight
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Mar 14, 2016, 02:33 PM
Over the last few days, a number of public figures relevant to the ongoing Apple-FBI battle over encryption have weighed in on the topic, and some new and old articles have come to light that have strengthened Apple's argument about the danger of creating any sort of backdoor into its security. Most notably, satirical news commentator John Oliver (formerly of the The Daily Show) has put together an informative segment (seen below) highlighting the contentious history of encryption, and those who try to break it.

Oliver's in-depth piece explains the history of encryption, and the current battle between the FBI and Apple over the specific work-issued iPhone 5c that was left intact by San Bernardino workplace massacre gunman Syed Farook. After laying out what both the government and Apple have to say about the issue, Oliver goes on to illustrate why backdoors are generally a bad idea, saying that most of Apple's opponents simply do not grasp how the technology works, and that Apple cannot comply with the government's request with compromising the security of all smartphones -- including ones used by the government.

Oliver makes two little-discussed but strong points in making his case in favor of strong encryption: first, that the government has tried this before in the 1990s with the Clipper Chip, which was supposed to offer exactly the sort of good-guys-only access the FBI imagines is possible, at an even stronger hardware level than the software solution the government is now seeking. The Clipper chip's access to authorities was compromised by hacker Matt Blaze within weeks of its release, allowing users to easily shut off the chip's access.

The other point he makes is that even if Apple were forced to compromise the security of the iPhone's operating system, it would do nothing to stop application-level encryption, particularly from applications developed outside the United States, or encrypted data stored on servers outside the US. Instead, those seeking data privacy would simply adopt secure applications, and the move would likely drive other countries to develop their own standards of strong encryption that the US would have no access to.

Authorities "have convinced themselves" that "Apple's magic powers" will allow the Cupertino company to "figure out" a way to make encryption strong for everyone except the US government. He closes by saying that the interest of foreign powers in demanding access to any tool Apple develops for the FBI on legal grounds should be enough to convince even proponents of the "legal tenuousness" of the FBI's argument.

Apple, however, is not spared from ridicule: Oliver blames the "magical thinking" of various agencies and presidential candidates in part on Apple's marketing, which routinely uses terms like "magical" to highlight how incredibly clever the company is. The company has, in fact, had to strengthen security mostly as a response to hackers (contrary to a Department of Justice claim that Apple has strengthened security largely to hinder law enforcement), Oliver points out, and concludes his analysis with a fake commercial for Apple, in which executives confess that security is one of the few things they've gotten right, echoing a popular (but largely inaccurate) impression that the company's software prowess has dropped in quality in recent years.

Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower who revealed the large-scale domestic and international spying and mass-collection of data by the National Security Agency in apparent violation of the Fourth Amendment, by contrast, takes a different tack in his comments on the FBI kerfuffle: he says the agency's admission it cannot decrypt the iPhone is a sham, pointing out that he has already written a detailed explanation (available on the American Civil Liberties Union's website) of how to bypass the iPhone's auto-erase function, a key element of the FBI's claim in court.

Apple and other security researchers have also pointed out that it would have been possible for the FBI to induce an iCloud backup of the phone's contents -- one of several suggestions Apple engineers say they made to the agency when initially asked for help -- but the agency bungled the investigation in resetting the iCloud password, closing that avenue. Other researchers have pointed out various other alternatives, such as "de-capping" the storage chips in the hardware, or using hardware to reset the iPhone's internal "password attempt" counter. The techniques, Snowden says, usually work -- but are difficult, expensive, or both, and include a risk of destroying the iPhone, but are known and commonly-used techniques.

Snowden suggests that the NSA and CIA have been left out of the conversation on smartphone decryption quite deliberately, and that they likely have some other techniques that may or may not be known to the FBI. He, along with other critics, suggest that the FBI is aware of these other options, but has opted to "play dumb" in the hopes of using this case to force a removal or weakening of security on mobile devices -- an objective FBI Director James Comey has previously advocated for.
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Mar 14, 2016, 04:38 PM
If it weren't for comedians, there'd be no journalism at all in the U.S.
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