Space & Innovation

Unlocking Terrorist's iPhone Won't Risk Your Security

Experts say providing a one-time key is much different than programming a backdoor into every phone.

Unlocking the iPhone that belonged to one of two dead terrorists in California will not lead to a massive security "backdoor" for government snooping.

What the FBI wants is a one-time code change for the San Bernadino shooter's device to see whether the husband and wife team had ties to other terror groups.

FBI-Apple Butt Heads Over Mass Shooter's IPhone

Fulfilling that request would set a legal precedent, however, that could lead to unlocking dozens of other criminals' iPhones around the country.

CEO Tim Cook thinks the Department of Justice is going too far. In a letter he sent on Monday to shareholders, he wrote:

"Up to this point, we have done everything that is both within our power and within the law to help [the DOJ]. But now the U.S. government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create. They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone."

Most Wanted Women: FBI's Female Felons: Photos

But Cook might be overreaching with this statement, as the FBI is not asking for a backdoor -- computer code programmed into every device sold that would allow the government in indiscriminately.

The FBI is asking Apple to send a wireless message to the specific iPhone telling it that its time to update, and thereby accept a line of new code that would allow agents to crack open the PIN-protected phone. Without that new line of code, FBI agents can make only a finite number of password attempts before the phone automatically erases the data.

"All this big talk from Apple as this case being a threat to Apple -- that only makes sense if they think its setting a legal precedent that could be abused," said David Evans, professor of computer science at the University of Virginia and an expert on cryptography and web security. "That's very different than a cryptographic backdoor. It's important that this distinction is clear."

7 Everyday Techs Spying On You

Apple didn't respond to a phone message left on an answering machine at their "Media Help Center."

"Backdoors are complicated and impossible technical challenges and would risk everyone's privacy," Evans said. "But what the FBI is asking for is different from what Apple says the FBI is asking for."

In previous cases, Apple has turned over data from iPhones to law enforcement officials. However with the advent of its latest operating system, known as iOS 9, the iPhone automatically encrypts itself with a hidden key.

This key is made up of a value unique to the phone, combined with the user's password or PIN, according to Rick Mislan, visiting professor in the department of computing security at Rochester Institute of Technology.

7 Everyday Techs Spying on You

"Apple is correct in the philosophical way, but in the technical way, people know better," Mislan said.

The dispute may be about branding Apple as a pro-privacy company, he added.

"Apple is standing on the lot saying, we are the holders of your privacy and security. I didn't buy an iPhone for that. I thought their camera was their selling point."

Most Wanted Women: FBI's Female Felons: Photos

Mislan notes that dozens of other iPhones are waiting to be unlocked in just as many criminal cases, should Apple agree to abide by the federal judge's order in the San Bernadino case. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance said he has 175 iPhones connected to homicide, attempted murder and sex crimes cases that he wants unlocked.

Despite the challenges of unlocking the latest iPhone, most of the electronic advances in encryption and surveillance have been good for law enforcement. That's because in general criminals haven't used encryption technology to their advantage.

FBI-Apple Butt Heads Over Mass Shooter's IPhone

"For the most part they are not that sophisticated," said Virginia's Evans. "They are picking a bad guessable password or allowing tracking malware on their device. There are lots of ways for law enforcement to be effective against all but the most sophisticated criminals."

The Apple-FBI battle continues will the next court hearing March 22. Congress takes up the issue next week during a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee on encryption technologies.

Protesters misunderstand what the FBI wants from Apple.

Thanks to malicious software, technology today has the ability to track your every move.