The National Security Agency’s silence in the Apple-FBI story is probably not so surprising. But that hasn’t stopped people from dragging the NSA’s name into the conversation.
The latest to do so is Richard Clarke, former counterterrorism chair under presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Clarke appeared on NPR with David Greene and said the NSA could crack the locked iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino shooters, Syed Farook. The FBI’s real motivation in its debate with Apple, Clarke theorized, is that it is more interested in establishing a precedent that would afford access onto locked devices rather than just learning what’s on Farook’s iPhone 5c.
“Every expert I know believes that NSA could crack this phone,” Clarke said. “They want the precedent that the government can compel a computer device manufacturer to allow the government in.”
To review, the a federal magistrate has ordered Apple to assist the FBI in unlocking the phone; this would require new firmware that would allow the FBI to brute-force the phone’s passcode offline without triggering a device wipe after 10 incorrect guesses. Apple CEO Tim Cook immediately and defiantly refused to comply with the order, and privacy, security and legal experts have sided with Apple. The Department of Justice, meanwhile, has called Apple’s stance a marketing ploy. The two sides will have their day in court in one week before magistrate Sheri Pym.
“If I were in the job now, I would have simply told the FBI to call Fort Meade, the headquarters of the National Security Agency, and NSA would have solved this problem for them,” Clarke said. “[The FBI is] not as interested in solving the problem as they are in getting a legal precedent.”
The DOJ and FBI have staked their case on the 1789 All Writs Act to compel Apple to write new code that does not exist to help the FBI unlock the phone. Clarke and legal experts since this began insist that the court cannot force Apple to do so because computer code has legally been equated to speech.
“And courts have ruled in the past, appropriately, that the government cannot compel speech,” Clarke said. “What the FBI and the Justice Department are trying to do is to make code writers at Apple—to make them write code that they do not want to write that will make their systems less secure.”
In the meantime, the NSA stands as the muscle in the corner. The agency’s ability to unlock the phone is one key unanswered question in this debate. Another is the value of Farook’s phone, which was issued to the shooter by his employee, San Bernardino County where he was a health inspector. The device was found in a drawer by investigators following the December mass murder of 14 carried out by Farook and his wife. Two other phones belonging to Farook had already been destroyed, investigators said, leaving some to speculate that there could be very little evidence on the remaining device.
Security experts, meanwhile, question whether the NSA would want to be involved in breaking into the device, especially if the device turns out to be barren of evidence.
“This is such a high profile case, [NSA] may not want to make its capability known to the general public,” said iOS forensics expert Jonathan Zdziarski. “Just the existence of this capability has high value to foreign governments. [NSA] wouldn’t want to burn it for some phone that has no evidence on it.”
IOActive researcher Andrew Zonenberg in February said the intelligence community has the resources and expertise to carry out delicate hardware hacks in order to leak the encryption keys securing the device, though he cautioned that invasive attacks against the iPhone are risky and could put any stored data in jeopardy of being destroyed.
“It’s been known [NSA] have a semiconductor [fabrication] since January 2001. They can make chips. They can make software. They can break software. Chances are they can probably break hardware,” Zonenberg told Threatpost. “How advanced they were, I cannot begin to guess.”
He too echoed Zdziarski’s theory about the NSA’s silence.
“It’s also fairly likely they are not sharing with the FBI. They don’t want their full capabilities to be known,” Zonenberg said. “The same way NSA knows how to break crypto, you’re not going to see that show up in court and see its capabilities get away.”