Apple exec takes to op-ed page, argues against turning back the clock to 'less-secure time'

Reprises arguments made by Apple and a slew of supporters in page of The Washington Post

iphone security stock

Apple's head of software engineering took to The Washington Post's op-ed page Sunday to reprise many of the arguments the company -- and supporters -- have made to contest a federal court order that would compel it to help the FBI break into a passcode-locked iPhone.

"The encryption technology built into today's iPhone represents the best data security available to consumers," asserted Craig Federighi, vice president of software engineering at Apple, in a piece published by the newspaper yesterday. But "the FBI, Justice Department and others in law enforcement are pressing us to turn back the clock to a less-secure time and less-secure technologies."

One of those "others in law enforcement" was Cyrus Vance Jr., the District Attorney for New York County, who last week urged Congress to mandate that Apple revert to the security features of 2013's iOS 7. Vance has said that's necessary so investigators can extract data from the more than 200 iPhones his office possesses as evidence in a wide range of criminal cases.

Federighi objected.

"They have suggested that the safeguards of iOS 7 were good enough and that we should simply go back to the security standards of 2013. But the security of iOS 7, while cutting-edge at the time, has since been breached by hackers. What's worse, some of their methods have been productized and are now available for sale to attackers who are less skilled but often more malicious," Federighi said.

Apple is fighting a February court order that compels it to assist the FBI in gaining entry to an iPhone 5C used by Syed Rizwan Farook, who along with his wife, Tafsheen Malik, killed 14 in San Bernardino, Calif. on Dec. 2, 2015 before they died in a shootout with police. The government has labeled the attack an act of terrorism.

The order would require Apple to create a customized version of iOS that would disable several security safeguards, then put the software on the device so authorities can bombard it with passcode guesses. The FBI has said it believes there is unique information on Farook's iPhone that will help its investigation.

Apple and its supporters -- 16 organizations, companies or groups of companies filed "friends of the court" briefs last week backing the firm's position -- have cited legal and constitutional arguments contesting the use of the All Writs Act. They have also contended that the creation of the FBI's tool would dampen enthusiasm for software updates, reduce the country's overall cyber security and unleash a flood of similar demands from authoritarian governments worldwide.

"If the U.S. government can demand these kinds of backdoors, other governments more repressive and less restrained than our own will surely demand them as well," wrote lawyers for the Center for Democracy and Technology in its amicus brief last week. "This danger will make our technological infrastructure weaker and more susceptible to foreign espionage and cyberattack."

"Once created, this software -- which law enforcement has conceded it wants to apply to many iPhones -- would become a weakness that hackers and criminals could use to wreak havoc on the privacy and personal safety of us all," echoed Federighi.

While the amicus briefs filed on behalf of Apple last week were filled with language best suited to legal and policy wonks, Federighi stuck to points that had a better chance of resonating with the general public.

"Security is an endless race -- one that you can lead but never decisively win," Federighi said. "Yesterday's best defenses cannot fend off the attacks of today or tomorrow. We cannot afford to fall behind those who would exploit technology in order to cause chaos. To slow our pace, or reverse our progress, puts everyone at risk."

The federal magistrate who ordered Apple to assist the FBI will hold a hearing March 22 before making her final decision on Apple's objections. Both the government and Apple are expected to appeal if she rules against them.

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