You can’t trust a word they say: smoke, mirrors, and unlocking iPhones

It was sold to us as a simple but vital step in the pursuit of the ‘war against terror’: Apple was asked to unlock one iPhone which had been used by an alleged terrorist who died in the midst of the carnage which he had wrought at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino. Apple quickly became the Bad Guy because it declined to co-operate.

Then it turned out to be more than one iPhone. There were possibly a couple of hundred, all passing through various stages of criminal proceedings. So it wasn’t just going to be this one vital exception, Apple was going to be expected to do this on quite a regular and frequent basis.

Then it turned out that this was not even the first time that Apple had been subject to an order requiring it to unlock an iPhone: during 2015 and 2016 Apple had challenged or objected to at least ten other orders issued under the same legislation. But it would appear that those cases did not warrant the same appeals and publicity on the part of law enforcement.

Then they started to smear Apple, making it sound as if Apple was protecting terrorists and ignoring its patriotic duty. As only Apple could possibly unlock the iPhone(s), it simply had to, for the good of the country.

Then, all of a sudden, they no longer needed Apple at all. Someone else had come forward to perform this task.

Then it became clear that there was not just someone, but at least one Israeli corporation who regularly did business with US law enforcement agencies could provide just this sort of service. Although no one is prepared to admit whether it is the ‘someone else’ who is unlocking the ‘San Bernardino’ iPhone, Cellebrite claims to be able to do this as a matter of routine: in fact they have already sold their Universal Forensic Extraction Devices (UFEDs) to US agencies. Cellebrite was not prepared to say how many of the 30,000 UFEDs that it has sold to date have been bought by US government, but it would seem surprising if there weren’t at least a thousand there by now.

You can even watch a YouTube video of a UFED unlocking an iPhone.

Cellebrite claims to be able to unlock any iPhone running iOS 8 or older. Yet many of the orders which Apple received related to iPhones running iOS 7 and older, which the FBI’s own UFEDs should be able to unlock with ease.

It has been speculated that, although the San Bernardino iPhone is a 5c and thus lacks the A7 processor and Secure Enclave of the 5s and later models, because it is thought to have been running iOS 9, Cellebrite’s UFEDs cannot (yet) unlock it.

But in the midst of all the half-truths, errors, smoke and mirrors which have come from US law enforcement, it is hard to tell now what this is all about. It certainly seems more about politics than about one criminal investigation.

Someone needs to unlock the truth here.