The debate over encryption continues to drag on without end.
In recent months, the discourse has largely swung away from encrypted smartphones to focus instead on end-to-end encrypted messaging. But a recent press conference by the heads of the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) showed that the debate over device encryption isn’t dead, it was merely resting. And it just won’t go away.
At the presser, Attorney General William Barr and FBI Director Chris Wray announced that after months of work, FBI technicians had succeeded in unlocking the two iPhones used by the Saudi military officer who carried out a terrorist shooting at the Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida in December 2019. The shooter died in the attack, which was quickly claimed by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Early this year — a solid month after the shooting — Barr had asked Apple to help unlock the phones (one of which was damaged by a bullet), which were older iPhone 5 and 7 models. Apple provided “gigabytes of information” to investigators, including “iCloud backups, account information and transactional data for multiple accounts,” but drew the line at assisting with the devices. The situation threatened to revive the 2016 “Apple versus FBI” showdown over another locked iPhone following the San Bernardino terror attack.
After the government went to federal court to try to dragoon Apple into doing investigators’ job for them, the dispute ended anticlimactically when the government got into the phone itself after purchasing an exploit from an outside vendor the government refused to identify. The Pensacola case culminated much the same way, except that the FBI apparently used an in-house solution instead of a third party’s exploit.
You’d think the FBI’s success at a tricky task (remember, one of the phones had been shot) would be good news for the Bureau. Yet an unmistakable note of bitterness tinged the laudatory remarks at the press conference for the technicians who made it happen. Despite the Bureau’s impressive achievement, and despite the gobs of data Apple had provided, Barr and Wray devoted much of their remarks to maligning Apple, with Wray going so far as to say the government “received effectively no help” from the company.
This diversion tactic worked: in news stories covering the press conference, headline after headline after headline highlighted the FBI’s slam against Apple instead of focusing on what the press conference was nominally about: the fact that federal law enforcement agencies can get into locked iPhones without Apple’s assistance.
That should be the headline news, because it’s important. That inconvenient truth undercuts the agencies’ longstanding claim that they’re helpless in the face of Apple’s encryption and thus the company should be legally forced to weaken its device encryption for law enforcement access. No wonder Wray and Barr are so mad that their employees keep being good at their jobs.
By reviving the old blame-Apple routine, the two officials managed to evade a number of questions that their press conference left unanswered. What exactly are the FBI’s capabilities when it comes to accessing locked, encrypted smartphones? Wray claimed the technique developed by FBI technicians is “of pretty limited application” beyond the Pensacola iPhones. How limited? What other phone-cracking techniques does the FBI have, and which handset models and which mobile OS versions do those techniques reliably work on? In what kinds of cases, for what kinds of crimes, are these tools being used?
We also don’t know what’s changed internally at the Bureau since that damning 2018 Inspector General postmortem on the San Bernardino affair. Whatever happened with the FBI’s plans, announced in the IG report, to lower the barrier within the agency to using national security tools and techniques in criminal cases? Did that change come to pass, and did it play a role in the Pensacola success? Is the FBI cracking into criminal suspects’ phones using classified techniques from the national security context that might not pass muster in a court proceeding (were their use to be acknowledged at all)?
Further, how do the FBI’s in-house capabilities complement the larger ecosystem of tools and techniques for law enforcement to access locked phones? Those include third-party vendors GrayShift and Cellebrite’s devices, which, in addition to the FBI, count numerous U.S. state and local police departments and federal immigration authorities among their clients. When plugged into a locked phone, these devices can bypass the phone’s encryption to yield up its contents, and (in the case of GrayShift) can plant spyware on an iPhone to log its passcode when police trick a phone’s owner into entering it. These devices work on very recent iPhone models: Cellebrite claims it can unlock any iPhone for law enforcement, and the FBI has unlocked an iPhone 11 Pro Max using GrayShift’s GrayKey device.
In addition to Cellebrite and GrayShift, which have a well-established U.S. customer base, the ecosystem of third-party phone-hacking companies includes entities that market remote-access phone-hacking software to governments around the world. Perhaps the most notorious example is the Israel-based NSO Group, whose Pegasus software has been used by foreign governments against dissidents, journalists, lawyers and human rights activists. The company’s U.S. arm has attempted to market Pegasus domestically to American police departments under another name. Which third-party vendors are supplying phone-hacking solutions to the FBI, and at what price?
Finally, who else besides the FBI will be the beneficiary of the technique that worked on the Pensacola phones? Does the FBI share the vendor tools it purchases, or its own home-rolled ones, with other agencies (federal, state, tribal or local)? Which tools, which agencies and for what kinds of cases? Even if it doesn’t share the techniques directly, will it use them to unlock phones for other agencies, as it did for a state prosecutor soon after purchasing the exploit for the San Bernardino iPhone?
We have little idea of the answers to any of these questions, because the FBI’s capabilities are a closely held secret. What advances and breakthroughs it has achieved, and which vendors it has paid, we (who provide the taxpayer dollars to fund this work) aren’t allowed to know. And the agency refuses to answer questions about encryption’s impact on its investigations even from members of Congress, who can be privy to confidential information denied to the general public.
The only public information coming out of the FBI’s phone-hacking black box is nothingburgers like the recent press conference. At an event all about the FBI’s phone-hacking capabilities, Director Wray and AG Barr cunningly managed to deflect the press’s attention onto Apple, dodging any difficult questions, such as what the FBI’s abilities mean for Americans’ privacy, civil liberties and data security, or even basic questions like how much the Pensacola phone-cracking operation cost.
As the recent PR spectacle demonstrated, a press conference isn't oversight. And instead of exerting its oversight power, mandating more transparency, or requiring an accounting and cost/benefit analysis of the FBI’s phone-hacking expenditures — instead of demanding a straight and conclusive answer to the eternal question of whether, in light of the agency’s continually-evolving capabilities, there’s really any need to force smartphone makers to weaken their device encryption — Congress is instead coming up with dangerous legislation such as the EARN IT Act, which risks undermining encryption right when a population forced by COVID-19 to do everything online from home can least afford it.
The best-case scenario now is that the federal agency that proved its untrustworthiness by lying to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court can crack into our smartphones, but maybe not all of them; that maybe it isn’t sharing its toys with state and local police departments (which are rife with domestic abusers who’d love to get access to their victims’ phones); that unlike third-party vendor devices, maybe the FBI’s tools won’t end up on eBay where criminals can buy them; and that hopefully it hasn’t paid taxpayer money to the spyware company whose best-known government customer murdered and dismembered a journalist.
The worst-case scenario would be that, between in-house and third-party tools, pretty much any law enforcement agency can now reliably crack into everybody’s phones, and yet nevertheless this turns out to be the year they finally get their legislative victory over encryption anyway. I can’t wait to see what else 2020 has in store.