Is San Bernardino iPhone fully Encrypted?

Here is a question that keeps me up at night…

Is the San Bernardino iPhone just locked or is it properly encrypted?

Isn’t full encryption beyond the reach of forensic investigators? So we come to the real question: If critical data on the San Bernardino iPhone is properly encrypted, and if the Islamic terrorist who shot innocent Americans used a good password, then what is it that the FBI thinks that Apple can do to help crack this phone? Doesn’t good encryption thwart forensic analysis, even by the FBI and the maker of the phone?

iphone-01In the case of Syed Rizwan Farook’s iPhone, the FBI doesn’t know if the shooter used a long and sufficiently unobvious password. They plan to try a rapid-fire dictionary attack and other predictive algorithms to deduce the password. But the content of the iPhone is protected by a closely coupled hardware feature that will disable the phone and even erase memory, if it detects multiple attempts with the wrong password. The FBI wants Apple to help them defeat this hardware sentry, so that they can launch a brute force hack—trying thousands of passwords each second. Without Apple’s help, the crack detection hardware could automatically erase incriminating evidence, leaving investigators in the dark.

Mitch Vogel is an Apple expert. As both a former police officer and one who has worked with Apple he succinctly explains the current standoff between FBI investigators and Apple.


The iPhone that the FBI has is locked with a passcode and encrypted. It can only be decrypted with the unique code. Not even Apple has that code or can decrypt it. Unlike what you see in the movies, it’s not possible for a really skilled hacker to say “It’s impossible“” and then break through it with enough motivation. Encryption really is that secure and it’s really impossible to break without the passcode.

What the FBI wants to do is brute force the passcode by trying every possible combination until they guess the right one. However, to prevent malicious people from using this exact technique, there is a security feature that erases the iPhone after 10 attempts or locks it for incrementally increasing time periods with each attempt. There is no way for the FBI (or Apple) to know if the feature that erases the iPhone after 10 tries is enabled or not, so they don’t even want to try and risk it.

oceans_of_data-sSo the FBI wants Apple to remove that restriction. That is reasonable. They should, if it is possible to do so without undue burden. The FBI should hand over the iPhone to Apple and Apple should help them to crack it.

However, this isn’t what the court order is asking Apple to do. The FBI wants Apple to create software that disables this security feature on any iPhone and give it to them. Even if it’s possible for this software to exist, it’s not right for the FBI to have it in their possession. They should have to file a court order every single time they use it. The FBI is definitely using this situation as an opportunity to create a precedent and give it carte blanche to get into any iPhone without due process.

So the answer to your question is that yes it is that secure and yes, it’s a ploy by the FBI. Whether it’s actually possible for Apple to help or not is one question and whether they should is another. Either way, the FBI should not have that software.

Culture of Violence: Are games & media part of the problem?

This is the 4th and final Wild Duck editorial related to the Newtown school
massacre in December 2012. Scroll down to view these articles:

■ Logan’s Guardians: Poignant Sandy Hook back story
■ 3-Prong Approach to School Security Avoids Lockdown
■ Few tributes to killer’s mother? Don’t feel guilt
■ Violence in Games & Media: Not part of the problem

Liza Long has become an internet sensation of sorts. Her Blog post “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother”  [alternate site] went viral in the aftermath of the Newtown school shooting. Of course, she is not Nancy Lanza. The shooter’s mother was the first victim of a calculated rampage that left 28 dead in all, including 20 first-grade students and 6 staff members.

Mrs. Long’s 13 year old son exhibits periodic, aggressive and threatening outbursts. This violent behavior alternates with longer periods of high-performing academics and true remorse over the violent episodes. As you can imagine, the boy has had numerous diagnoses. Brief episodes of aberrant behavior interspersed by apology or confusion could be a symptom of mental illness, a tumor, or even a trauma. It could relate to his food, his family environment, or even religious delusion (In this case, none of these are among the various diagnoses of mental illness).

But the article is not an analysis of the boy. It is a sharing of the enormous effort and anguish of being parent to a teenage child with mental illness and, as Liza explains in follow-up interviews, it is a plea for help and also an expression of her opinion that identifying and treating mental illness may save more lives than gun control.

Mrs. Long is one heck of a great writer! Her story column is among the most compelling and persuasive editorials I have ever read. I could learn from her communication style: captivating, thought provoking, and very clearly articulated.

I suspect that both issues factor into the number of mass murders: mental illness and easy gun ownership & transfer. But some pundits, including the current head of the National Rifle Association are pointing to America’s culture of violence, especially the violence depicted in Hollywood films, on TV and in computer and video games.

I would not be quick to ban violence in films or in fiction (TV and video games). It is a slippery slope that easily leads to banning Roadrunner cartoons (Wiley E. Coyote frequently blows himself up or falls into canyons). What about non-fiction? Why not ban guns and bombs in historical documentaries? What about War and Peace? What about Disney? (the beginning of Bambi or Finding Nemo). What about the Bible? That’s probably the most violent book ever written!

In my opinion, banning violence in media provides a false panacea. Research demon-strates a connection between fictional violence and immediate attitude. I acknowledge this. For example, when kids play military “kill” games, they are more likely to react to an innocent bump as if it were intentional—and they are more likely to escalate the interaction.

While I do not dispute these findings, I believe that the reaction is temporary and superficial. The Japanese culture is filled with horrific violence in both games and fiction. Hentai cartoon books are a popular staple in subway kiosks and snatched up by business commuters. They depict rape, gore and dismemberment. Yet, the incidence of real violence, including violence directed toward woman and children, is almost non-existent. It is far, far below the statistical rate in America.

In fact, a contrary force may actually correlate violent media with peaceful coexistence. I suspect that fictional violence provides a personal release for aggressive tendencies and therefore reduces violent interaction in the real world.*

If I am correct (that fictional violence offers a relief valve), then the real question is what mechanism or what types of individuals cross the chasm from imagination to practice? Certainly, easy availability to weapons can play a role in transforming a moment of intense passion or rage into an act of aggression. So, introducing gun control is very likely a good thing. But guns will never be impossible to obtain, and so we must also explore the roots of mental illness and more importantly, the mechanisms or identification of individuals who may “cross the chasm”.

Some people choose to commit suicide by jumping into the Grand Canyon. Because of this, the National Park Service briefly fenced off every lookout point in the mid 1980s. I was incensed! They were taking away from every citizen and visitor the privilege and majestic view! It just didn’t make sense. I was relieved when they buckled to an outraged public reaction. After all, someone bent on suicide could step in front of a car or slice open a vein. I see the removal of violence from media not as an overreaction, but as completely ineffective and quite possibly counterproductive. (Imagine outlawing Terminator, Rambo, or a World War documentary).

* I believe that the same is true of pornography. Fortunately, an increasing number of feminists have dropped a tired, outdated argument that pornography debases {name a gender, race or socio-economic class} and subtly alters a consumer’s attitude toward the characters depicted. But I dasn’t mix venues. It is a separate issue.

Ellery Davies clarifies the intersection of Technology, Law and Public
Policy. He is a contributor to Yahoo, CNet, ABC News, PCWorld and
The Wall Street Journal. He is also Chief Editor of A Wild Duck.