The cost of what the FBI is asking Apple to do

Yesterday, Apple filed a motion to vacate he FBI’s recent court order. The motion itself is complex, but one of the arguments at its core is the extreme effort required to build what the FBI is asking for:

The compromised operating system that the governnment demands would require significant resources and effort to develop. Although it is difficult to estimate, because it has never been done before, the design, creation, validation, and deployment of the software likely would necessitate six to ten Apple engineers and employees dedicating a very substantial portion of their time for a minimum of two weeks, and likely as many as four weeks. Members of the team would include engineers from Apple’s core operating system group, a quality assurance engineer, a project manager, and either a document writer or tool writer.

Part of the case law surrounding the All Writs Act has produced this precedent language:

An order pursuant to the All Writs Act must not adversely affect the basic interests of the third party or impose an undue burden.

When someone says, Apple should just give them the number, or turn off the encryption, they clearly do not understand the level of effort and cost required on Apple’s part. This is a reasonable argument, especially when you consider that the FBI could have prevented all this if they came to Apple before they changed the iCloud password, thus preventing the phone from continuing to back itself up.

Using the All Writs Act to force an uninvolved, third party company to develop custom software for the government seems to be an overreach and would potentially set a dangerous precedent.



  • TomCrown

    One thing lost in all this is the shooters had “personal” phones that they destroyed before doing the shooting. It’s highly unlikely that the “work” phone would contain anything of interest and the FBI & DOJ know this as they have already looked at older iCloud back-ups.

    • I don’t do anything on my work phone that I wouldn’t want my employer to know about. I think that’s pretty common behavior, especially if you’re doing something you don’t want ANYONE to know about. I don’t think the FBI expects to find anything useful on this phone and they’ve already got the “There’s know way we could have known that” responses written up for the press conference just in case it gets that far.

    • jimothyGator

      This, among other reasons, is why I think it’s not just not “only this one phone,” it’s not EVEN this one phone.

      What I mean is, not only does the FBI want to establish a precedent (legal and technical) to force other phones to be unlocked, unlocking this particular phone isn’t even as important as the FBI’s PR campaign implies.

  • Caleb Hightower

    The FBI’s solution for saving a failed investigation is to turn privacy rights, and the companies that support those rights, upside down and inside out.

    A rather heavy-handed approach. Where the hell is Obama in all this? Where the hell is Congress? Shirking duties & obligations has become a national pastime.

    • jimothyGator

      Where is Obama in all this? On the side of the FBI. The FBI is under the executive branch, and the Justice Department—who filed the order to begin with—is part of the Obama Administration. It was the Justice Department who called Apple’s refusal a “marketing strategy”. So where Obama is on all this is clear: he’s not on the side of individual rights or privacy (which should not be surprising at all).

      Where Congress stands isn’t as clear, but it’s not likely to be any better. The FBI is pushing Congress to pass new laws that would force Apple and others to meet law enforcement demands such as this, and at least some members of Congress seem eager to side with the FBI and Obama on this. Rand Paul is the only member of Congress I’m aware of who has spoken against the FBI’s stance on this case. Most appear to be proceeding cautiously (perhaps waiting until after the election), while some are vocally calling for laws that would satisfy the FBI.

      So perhaps Congress and the president are shirking their duties, but to be honest, if they acted, we likely wouldn’t like the results, so I’d prefer they shirk.

      • Caleb Hightower

        The only person willing to stake a claim and be a strong, clear LEADER on this issue is Cook. I have yet to hear Obama come out in strong support of Jim Comey’s decision to force Apple’s hand.

        Feb 19, Obama’s Press Secretary said, “the F.B.I. can count on the full support of the White House.” Other than that, it’s been eerily quiet from the WH.

        Congress won’t touch it because it’s radioactive.

        The rest of Silicon Valley has been reluctant to support what they know to be the ‘right’ choice.

        ‘Public support’ numbers are suspect and I believe 90% of Americans don’t understand what’s at stake. There are two fundamental arguments being misconstrued as one: the right to privacy on our iPhone & Apple’s unwillingness to aid the FBI in catching terrorists.

        All other stakeholders, including Comey, have been ambivalent on how to proceed on iPhone privacy and we clearly need strong leadership on this. If Obama wants it, then let him publicly ask Apple for it. If Congress wants it, then let them write a law. If the citizens want it, then they can go buy a Samsung.

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  • sl149q

    The current court order is that the FBI wants Apple to produce a customized version of IOS signed for installation on a single iPhone. Done in this case in open court to sway public opinion. And presumably with some custom installation method because they can’t auto-update without the password.

    But remember that most of these requests are done under seal with Apple not being allowed to talk about it publicly. So once this precedent is set, the next step is a court order to do similar or other customizations to IOS for a specific customer’s phone and then simply put that into the normal IOS update system so that the next time that phone is updated (e.g. when the customer sees that a new update is generally available) the customized version of IOS is installed.

    I’ll leave to the imagination the types of customizations that the FBI or the NSA (or any totalitarian government e.g. China, Iran, etc.) might think to ask for.

    This really is the the camel getting it’s nose into the tent. Once it is there we won’t be able to get it out. And at that point there will simply be no way to trust our phones are doing what we think they are doing. They will be doing whatever the government wants them to do.

  • Mayson

    How many Apple engineers would be very very unwilling to work on this? How many would resign before being willing to do this? How badly would this affect morale in the engineering groups?

  • Scott Falkner

    The FBI’s poker face in this case is requesting — strike that; requiring — Apple enable electronic entry of passcode guesses with no wait time.

    (I am going with the belief the phone uses a four digit passcode. Is this confirmed?)

    If Apple merely removes the wipe-after-ten-guesses and delay-after-so-many-wrong-guesses features the FBI have all the necessary resources to brute force this one phone — one agent at a desk for a day. Assuming three seconds per guess it would take just over eight hours to enter every possible passcode. The average time needed is likely less than half that.

    So they don’t need to enable external passcode entry to break this phone. Yet they have asked a judge to compel programmers at Apple to create this so far nonexistent feature, just to save them one agent-day’s labour. Interesting.