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This Week in Tech

Safety, Security, Encryption & Backdoors

Cartoon from: used under 'Fair use' provisions for this non-commercial, educational blog.


A backdoor is a method, often secret, of bypassing normal authentication in a product, computer system, cryptosystem or algorithm etc. Backdoors are often used for securing unauthorized remote access to a computer, or obtaining access to plaintext in cryptographic systems. - from Wikipedia

Apple vs The FBI

Next Tuesday (22 March) is a very important day for Apple - and for users of technology around the world. Not because Apple is launching any new products (that happens the day before), but because they will start fighting an incredibly important case in US Federal court. In case you missed it, here's a quick summary what is happening and what is at stake:

Full disclosure: This author is very biased in favour of Apple's case.

On 2 December 2015 San Bernardino (in California) was the site of a mass shooting that killed 14 and seriously injured 22 people. Four days later President Obama declared that the shooting was actually a terrorist attack.

Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik were declared 'home-grown terrorists' not linked to any specific terrorist organisation but inspired and motivated by terrorist groups such as ISIS or Al Quaeda. They became 'radicalised' (i.e. religious extremists prepared to commit acts of terror in the name of their faith) through the internet.

Four hours after the attack the couple (they were married) was killed in a shoot-out with the police.

During their investigation the FBI found an iPhone 5C that Farook used but which belonged to San Bernardino county (Farook's employer). It was the only one of three phones which the couple had not destroyed.

The FBI wants access to the data on the phone.

iOS 9 (the Apple operating system installed on the phone) allows the user to protect the phone and its contents by using a 4 digit passcode. The security has the following features:

  • The user can specify that after 10 incorrect attempts to enter the passcode the phone will delete all its data.
  • After each incorrect attempt, the OS enforces a delay of increasing length before allowing someone to try a new passcode.
  • The passcode is stored on the device and not even Apple knows (or can find out) what the passcode is.

The FBI asked Apple for help and Apple provided them with the phones iCloud backups - the only data that Apple had access to. The FBI was not happy with this because:

  1. The backup data was old and out of date (Farook had last backed up 6 weeks before the attack).
  2. They felt that the backup did not contain all the data on the phone.

There was a way to try to get the phone to make a new backup, which Apple offered to do - but the FBI / San Bernardino law enforcement thought they were being clever and changed the iCloud password - which now no longer matched the password on the phone. So no new backup was possible.

Then, on 16 February 2016, the FBI got a Federal judge to issue an order to Apple to write a SPECIAL NEW VERSION of iOS to disable the security features on the phone so that they could hack it.

This was not a subpoena (telling Apple to appear in court / provide information) but an order issued under the All Writs Act of 1789. Apple was being told to write new software so that the government could hack a product that they make.

Apple refused to do what the FBI wanted. They decided instead to fight the FBI and the Federal judge's order in court.

Reasons for Apple's refusal to co-operate include:

  • That what the FBI wants is not information that is in Apple's possession but for Apple to create a new, previously non-existent 'backdoor' into Apple's secure iOS software.
  • Once created the backdoor could never be undone and would place all devices using iOS at risk around the world.
  • The case has international implications - if Apple can create a backdoor for the USA then other countries like Russia and China could legally demand the same thing.
  • That this is a serious matter and should not be decided in court but rather Congress (USA's Parliament) should create a law controlling the use of and rights around encryption.
  • That when the FBI says 'just once, just for this phone' what they really mean is 'do it once and you will have to do it whenever we like because we have created a legal precedent'.

Anyone who says that Apple should just do this for 'this one time' to fight terrorism does not understand how technology works. Once done, this can never be undone - and the US government has a pretty poor record of defending itself from hacks and leaks, so they can't claim that they can keep the backdoor safe and secret.

Another part of the problem for the FBI is that Congress has already passed a law (CALEA - the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act) about communications and encryption, which does not allow the government to do what the FBI is demanding of Apple -see the following:

(The FBI will say that Apple is not a 'carrier' but a manufacturer - but that clearly goes against the spirit and intention of the law). Perhaps this is why they are trying to use a law that is over 200 years old and not really applicable to get their way?

Author's opinion: There has long been a struggle between government and technology companies over encryption. I remember a time when some software was not allowed to be sold outside the USA because it contained encryption - and then a little later, when foreign versions of software had to contain 'weaker' 64 bit encryption instead of the 128 bit encryption used in the USA. The US government became so desperate to control encryption that in the 1990's they tried to force all makers of computer equipment to include a piece of hardware called the 'Clipper chip' that would perform all encryption but which would also allow the US government to decrypt and read any data they wanted to by having a built in 'Back door' to which the government would have the key. At the time there was a huge debate about the need for encryption vs the Governments need to access data for law enforcement. The government lost and the Clipper chip never became reality.

Today, far more people are using encryption because it is built into their personal devices and, to a large extent, automated. Government and Law enforcement hates this. The FBI wants to force all tech companies to build in a back door that will give them access to anyone's data whenever they want. They saw the San Bernardino issue as the perfect opportunity to cloud the issue with fear and emotion and the 'bogeyman' of terrorism so that they could get their way. They are also now using bullying tactics to try to force the issue before it gets to court: they have threatened Apple that if they don't co-operate they will take the source code for iOS!

It is interesting to note that not one security / tech expert has come out in support of the FBI's case. The list of Apple's supporters is large, with even their competitors (Google, Facebook, Microsoft) filing briefs to the court in support of Apple's position. They even have the support of an ex director of the NSA!

It is also worth bearing in mind that encryption is maths - anyone can do it and even if the USA bans it people will be able to obtain encryption software from other sources. Even if the FBI wins and can access all Apple devices and software, there is nothing to stop someone installing 3rd party encryption software and using that instead of Apple's built in messaging, e-mail etc.

For the classroom:

The outcome of this process (not likely to be resolved on Tuesday - that's just when it starts) will have an effect on your learner's lives - especially if the FBI wins. it's a great basis for a class discussion about the value of privacy, what encryption is, what type of data is on your phone, who should have access to that data - etc, etc. The cartoons are also great for printing and putting on your noticeboard!

Read more about this:

Time magazine: Apple vs FBI, Apple: Message to customers 16 February 2016, Apple employees may quit (The Verge), Apple's brief hits the FBI with a withering fact check (Wired magazine), What a backdoor is (Wikipedia), In the Apple encryption fight, the FBI is now on Chinas side (The Verge), John Oliver's 20 minute video covers the issue well, There is a nice image of fbiOS and a cartoon that summarises the gob-smacking stupidity of the order here, Another cartoon here.

What else happened this week?

Google beats Go champ

Artificial Intelligence.

Prominent science and tech personalities such as Professor Stephen Hawking, Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates and Elon Musk (CEO of Tesla motors and SpaceX) have recently made public statements about how they fear that AI poses a threat to humanity (think along the lines of SkyNet in the Terminator movies or the killer AI in The Matrix).

Read more about this here, and here, and here - and many more locatable with a quick search.

"The development of full Artificial Intelligence could spell the end of the human race". - Stephen Hawking, December 2014.

Artificial Intelligence is potentially the "biggest existential threat" to humanity. - Elon Musk.

Why is this topical?

Well, this week Google's Deepmind AI beat the human world champion of a game called "Go". This is significant because "Go" allows for many more potential moves than other strategy board games such as chess and checkers. In fact the number of potential moves in a game of "Go" is said to outnumber the atoms in the universe - which makes it virtually impossible for an AI to win using brute force (i.e. simply calculating all the possible moves in a way no human can). In order to win the AI has to "think" and strategize in an almost human fashion. This week Deepmind's AI won the first two games (out of 5) against Lee Se-Dol, a feat that many believed completely impossible with current technology and 'at least a decade away'.

How it applies to real life:

As teachers of computer subjects we have always spoken of how computers, robots and automation have impacted on so-called 'blue-collar' work. Manufacturing jobs have been lost to computer controlled, automated assembly lines. Rote administration and clerical jobs (filing, switchboard operation, typing pools, rooms full of accountants and mathematicians performing calculations) have also been wiped out by faster, more efficient computers. But, we have also been able to reassure that there are many jobs out there that computers could never do - because they can't think. Rapid advances in AI are due to change that in the near future. Suddenly many 'white-collar' (office / admin work) jobs are on the line with the World Economic Forum predicting between 5 and 7 million jobs potentially lost by 2020. Just think of all the taxi drivers, bus drivers, truck drivers that self-driving car technologies will put out of work (just one example of AI impact on previously 'safe' jobs).

AI is no longer the concern of researchers and scientists but a real factor of influence in the lives, careers and choices of your learners.

What else happened this week?

That's it for this week. Happy teaching!

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