Once again, the FBI is putting pressure on Apple to help them break into the phone of a mass shooter. And once again, Apple has been largely resistant to the effort. Which is good, because a government having control over a private company that gives them secret backdoor access into people's personal technology devices is an authoritarian wet dream waiting to happen.
It also doesn't matter anyway because — as Reuters pointed out this week — Apple already buckled under FBI pressure a few years and cancelled their plans to add end-to-end encryption to all iPhone backups in iCloud:
The company said it turned over at least some data for 90% of the requests it received [from the FBI]. It turns over data more often in response to secret U.S. intelligence court directives, which sought content from more than 18,000 accounts in the first half of 2019, the most recently reported six-month period.
But what if the FBI wants access to someone's locked iPhone, and they haven't backed it up to iCloud? They still don't need Apple's help, because — as with the San Bernardino shooting — there are plenty of third-party companies that can and will gladly solve the problem in exchange for money.
Over the past three months, OneZero sent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to over 50 major police departments, sheriffs, and prosecutors around the country asking for information about their use of phone-cracking technology. Hundreds of documents from these agencies reveal that law enforcement in at least 11 states spent over $4 million in the last decade on devices and software designed to get around passwords and access information stored on phones.
The documents range from contracts, requests for proposals (RFPs), invoices for payments by law enforcement, quotes from forensic companies, and emails traded between officials discussing vendor approval. They suggest that most law enforcement agencies bought forensic investigation products from a small group of companies that include Cellebrite, Grayshift, Paraben, BlackBag, and MSAB. In addition to selling the software and hardware needed to unlock phones, these companies also charge thousands of dollars each year to upgrade the software in their products. In addition, their customers spend thousands on training sessions to teach personnel in their offices how to use the tools.
And perhaps that's the most frustrating thing about this whole scenario. The US government is always warning us about the authoritarian overreaches of surveillance states like those in China, but really, they just want to replicate it without feeling guilty. Meanwhile, supposed-innovations of free market enterprise are providing the same opportunities for authoritarian surveillance capitalism, but, ya know, privately-owned, so immune to any legal oversight or transparency, because America. Isn't that supposed to be the dream?
Exclusive: Apple dropped plan for encrypting backups after FBI complained [Joseph Menn / Reuters]
Exclusive: U.S. Cops Have Wide Access to Phone Cracking Software, New Documents Reveal [Michael Hayes / OneZero]
Image via the White House