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What's happening with Apple and the FBI?

If you've been keeping up with the news, you'll know that there was a heated argument going on between Apple and the FBI regarding ''unlocking'' the San Bernardino shooter's iPhone.

The FBI claimed that Apple should have been prepared to help them unlock the phone (which was locked with password-enabled strong encryption) in the interest of national security, whereas Apple insisted that privacy should have come first.

What did the FBI want?

The FBI initially wanted Apple to create a firmware update which could be installed on the phone through USB, so they could try every possible pass code without the phone locking permanently. The firmware needed to disable the amount of times a pass code could be entered incorrectly, and the time you have to wait between entering incorrect pass codes.

Would a firmware update have unlocked the phone?

Apple confirmed that this update would bypass their security, but only for older models. From the iPhone 5s onward, all Apple devices have 'Secure Enclave'. It handles password attempts separately from the rest of the device, which is far more secure. But the iPhone is a 5c, so this approach would have worked.

So what was Apple's problem with this?

Apple protested that this ''backdoor'' would give the FBI access to all of their customer's devices from the iPhone 5c backwards. They claimed that the firmware update violated the public's privacy, and said they worked for their customers - not the US government.

But the FBI then claimed they didn't need Apple's help, as an outside party (now thought to be an Israeli-based mobile software company) had found a way to unlock the iPhone. The FBI have now unlocked the phone and dropped the case against Apple.  

What's the subtext? 

Apple have spent a lot of time and money claiming they protect their user's privacy, so it would have been an odd PR decision to comply. They were worried that if they lost this case in court it would set a legal precedent for other cases, and they'd be forced to help in future.

Apple are now concerned that as the FBI gained access to the iPhone through a security flaw, it could allow the FBI into every Apple device quickly, easily and without Apple's knowledge or intervention. Apple are now under pressure to locate the flaw and patch it. 

But the FBI have only delayed the wider discussion. Their argument rested on the All Writs Act, which is over 200 years old and therefore unstable grounds for a conversation about a mobile phone. The question of who businesses should be working for remains open.

Can I keep my devices protected?

If you're worried about the security of your Apple device, you can change your password to a complex alphanumeric string in the settings section. This makes a brute-force attack very difficult and much more time consuming.

But that isn't the real problem here - unless you suspect your phone is likely to be seized by the US government. This navigation of Apple's security is possible, legal or not - and we know from Edward Snowden that the GCHQ could be able to get into our devices already. 

If the FBI have such easy access to our iPhones through a new law or a security flaw it could open up a huge can of worms. If outside forces are able to legally access, locate and manipulate our devices, it will be difficult for any amount of security to give consumers peace of mind. 

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