The Justice Department reignited its fight with Apple over iPhone encryption.

The Justice Department Just Reignited Its Fight With Apple Over iPhone Encryption

The Justice Department Just Reignited Its Fight With Apple Over iPhone Encryption

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Oct. 11 2017 3:35 PM

The Justice Department Just Reignited Its Fight With Apple Over iPhone Encryption

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein at FBI headquarters on Sept. 28.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The U.S. government still has a bone to pick with Apple. On Tuesday, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein delivered a speech at the U.S. Naval Academy where he took the opportunity to reignite tensions with Apple over the company’s refusal to help the FBI break the encryption on an iPhone used by Syed Farook, the terrorist who killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California, in 2015.

Rosenstein pressed tech companies to build their products with what he called “responsible encryption,” which would allow law enforcement to more easily get data off a device of someone under investigation, like if there’s a search warrant or a wiretap order. But security researchers and privacy advocates have long argued such exceptions are essentially “back doors.” And making it easier for law enforcement to break into the encryption makes it easier in turn for a malicious actor to find that back door and do the same.


“The data on the phone was encrypted, but Apple had the ability to assist the government in obtaining that data,” said Rosenstein, as he took a moment to recall what happened with the FBI’s very public brawl with Apple over helping the government break into Farook’s iPhone. “The government sought Apple’s voluntary assistance. Apple rejected the government’s request, although it had the technical capability to help.”

Ultimately, the FBI found a way to hack into the iPhone without Apple’s help, but the government’s frustration with Apple’s refusal to cooperate doesn’t seem to have dwindled. Rosenstein complained that over the past year, the FBI has been unable to search roughly 7,500 devices submitted to its Computer Analysis and Response Team despite having the legal authority to search them.

That must be incredibly frustrating for law enforcement officers, but the federal government hasn’t proven to be very trustworthy in handling the sensitive back doors and vulnerabilities that it already stockpiles to crack software and device security, including encryption. Just last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that in 2015 hackers working for the Russian government stole a trove of National Security Agency hacking tools and other highly classified files off a government contractor’s computer. Then in the summer of 2016, a secretive hacking group called the Shadow Brokers went as far as to publish a collection of hacking tools that it stole from the NSA. Those hacking tools included a number of zero-day exploits, which are vulnerabilities in software, hardware, or even a whole computer network that have never been previously discovered.

The last thing any of major tech company probably wants right now is to be complicit in a massive hack of its users. Facebook, Google, and Twitter are all under Congress’ microscope for the role their ad and social media sharing tools played in helping Russian government backed groups manipulate, and often deceive, U.S. voters in the run up to the election. All three companies have been invited to testify to the Senate on Nov. 1.

But the current congressional scrutiny might also be the reason why Rosenstein decided that this is the right moment to revive the debate. Silicon Valley isn’t in the best political standing on Capitol Hill these days. Beyond the Russia probe, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been calling for an investigation into whether the major tech companies—like Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook—have become monopolies and are in violation of antitrust law, too. The Justice Department may be looking to join the chorus and push for Congress to take up reforms it’d like to see from Silicon Valley, too.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.