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Who watches the watchmen? Apple vs. The FBI

The confrontation between the FBI and Apple over decrypting an Apple iPhone 5C used by Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the San Bernardino terrorists, who murdered fourteen and injured twenty two more on December 2, 2015, is a very interesting story.

At first blush the story seems quite simple. The FBI clearly wants to know what is on Farook’s phone, as it could potentially tell them if the terrorists had accomplices, as well as if they were in touch with other potential terrorists before the attack. Everyone involved (other than perhaps their accomplices if they exist) wants the FBI to get the information on the phone.

In fact, Apple assisted the FBI in getting all the information backed up to iCloud, and offered advice on how to retrieve the data from the locked iPhone. That advice was simply to plug in the phone in the presence of a known WiFi network, which might have triggered an automatic backup to iCloud of the more recent data. This would not have been affective if Farook had disabled backups, but otherwise would have sent a backup to iCloud that Apple would have been able to provide the FBI.

The reason this method didn’t work for the FBI was that they had the Farook’s employer, the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health, change the iCloud password for Farook’s phone “in the hours after the attack”. That action prevents the iPhone from automatically backing up to iCloud. In this case, it means that the most recent six weeks of data is not backed up, and now cannot be accessed without the user’s screen lock passcode. As part of the iPhone’s security, Apple automatically disables the phone is too many wrong passcodes are entered into the phone. That means the FBI cannot just enter the 10,000 possible passcodes sequentially until they get the correct one. It is this security feature – the disabling of the phone for repeated passcode attempts – that the FBI wants Apple to remove from the phone.

Let’s take a step back. Apple offers very clear guidelines to law enforcement, explaining what data Apple can provide them with with a proper warrant. The guidelines provide the exact text which they say needs to be in the search warrant for Apple to be able to comply, which is the following:

“It is hereby ordered that Apple Inc. assist [LAW ENFORCEMENT AGENCY] in its search of one Apple iOS device, Model #____________, on the _______ network with access number (phone number) _________, serial3 or IMEI4 number __________, and FCC ID#_____________ (the “Device”), by providing reasonable technical assistance in the instance where the Device is in reasonable working order and has been locked via passcode protection. Such reasonable technical assistance consists of, to the extent possible, extracting data from the Device, copying the data from the Device onto an external hard drive or other storage medium, and returning the aforementioned storage medium to law enforcement. Law Enforcement may then perform a search of the device data on the supplied storage medium.

It is further ordered that, to the extent that data on the Device is encrypted, Apple may provide a copy of the encrypted data to law enforcement but Apple is not required to attempt to decrypt, or otherwise enable law enforcement’s attempts to access any encrypted data.

Although Apple shall make reasonable efforts to maintain the integrity of data on the Device, Apple shall not be required to maintain copies of any user data as a result of the assistance ordered herein; all evidence preservation shall remain the responsibility of law enforcement agents.”

Note that Apple writes in the text that they “may provide a copy of the encrypted data to law enforcement but Apple is not required to attempt to decrypt, or otherwise enable law enforcement’s attempts to access any encrypted data.”

The FBI clearly already had such a search warrant issued, and Apple clearly already complied with it and provided them with the data that was more than six weeks old from the iCloud backup. Now the FBI wants that encrypted data, which Apple is fighting. Why is Apple fighting this? If they could access the data, then why wouldn’t just hand it over to the FBI like they did the iCloud backups? The answer is complicated. The short version is they have never done it, and if they do it now, they’ll be opening up the floodgates to probably thousands of iPhones in the possession of law enforcement that they want hacked.

The long version is that Apple looks at this as a civil rights issue. Apple has worked hard to make their devices secure for their customers. People trust their phones with all kinds of personal information, and don’t want that information available to the outside world. In addition, the FBI has used the All Writs Act of 1789 to pursue their unprecedented request for Apple to break into the iPhone in question. Apple feels that this is an attempt by the FBI to expand its powers using the 1789 law in a way that was never intended.

Apple responded with a letter to it’s customers, as well as a letter to it’s employees, outlining its opposition to creating such a backdoor to the iPhone.

Now begins the real battle. I think a few scenarios are worth taking a look at here.

  • Recently there have been a number of articles written wondering what would have happened if the phone in question had been an Android phone. The general consensus seems to be that the security of Android isn’t as strong as the iPhone’s, and it’s likely the phone would have been able to be broken into by the FBI without any help from the manufacturer. Part of the problem is that Android phones are not updated as regularly as Apple devices. Many Android phones get stuck at a certain Android version and never get updated. Apple has a much better record of getting their older phones updated with newer operating systems. In fact, the iPhone 5C in question here was released with iOS 7, which did not offer the level of encryption that is dogging the FBI right now. Only when the phone was updated to iOS 8 did the stronger encryption features kick in that are at the center of this case.
  • The cost of Apple to create an alternate version of their OS that is hackable is never really discussed. How many people work on iOS? How many people would be needed to implement this change? How much would it cost to keep such a version secure from other users cost? Apple wouldn’t have any problem doing any of this, but what if the device in question had been created by a startup? What if complying with the request would make them miss a market window (perhaps shipping in time for the holidays) and that could potentially send them into bankruptcy?
  • What would happen in the hacked version of iOS got out into the wild? Apple could build all kinds of safeguards into the software, such as only enabling it to work on Apple’s internal network, needing to get permission from a central server to operate, being linked to specific hardware, etc. but all of those things could be circumvented. It’s also clear that if it did get out into the wild, the people using it would be criminals, not the FBI. Criminals pay a lot better than the FBI.
  • The WSJ is reporting that the Justice Department already has a dozen iPhones it wants cracked by Apple, and none of those phones have anything to do with terrorism. This is the crack in the dam that Apple wants to make sure gets plugged. Apple knows they cannot offer to crack the phone in this case, and not crack the others if their requests are all based on the same All Writs Act.
  • This out out there, but worth considering. What if this is all an act? What if Apple already agreed to crack the phone, but wants cover from the FBI to insure their customers don’t know they’ve done it? In this stream, criminals and terrorists would probably switch to iPhones over Android phones, knowing Apple had fought the FBI successfully to prevent access. If Apple was secretly providing the data to the FBI, then this would be a great way to encourage switching to the devices that the FBI already has access to via Apple. If it seems the FBI and Apple are both making too big a deal of this issue, dragging into the public sphere what is usually very discrete, then this makes a lot more sense. For the record, I don’t believe this is the case, but in some ways it makes a lot more sense.

In light of the above, I thought it curious timing when I plugged in my iPhone to my computer and was presented with the following pop-up:

Apple Encryption Pop-Up

Now it’s possible this is coincidence. I don’t always have an iPhone cable in my office to connect to my computer. Maybe I haven’t plugged in my iPhone to my computer in a long time. The timing does make me wonder if other people have been asked by iTunes if they want to turn on backup encryption since San Bernardino entered the news. Have you seen this message recently? What are your thoughts on the Apple, FBI, and encrypted data?

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iPhone 4S - open with original battery
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Replacing the battery in my iPhone (10 minutes + 1 month)

I use an iPhone 4s as my main phone. While Apple still sells this model, as someone who has been using it for over two years, it has certainly started to show its age. In pre-iPhone days, when one’s battery invariably wore out, you could buy a new battery and swap it easily. In all its wisdom, Apple pretty much squashed that idea. It’s a compromise between being able to let consumers replace their own batteries, and having slimmer phones. Apple chose slimmer phones.

iPhone 4S - open with original battery
My iPhone 4s showing the original battery

If you’re asking why I still use an iPhone 4s, instead of an iPhone 5, iPhone 5c (just kidding), or iPhone 5s, it’s really quite simple. Nothing in the more recent iPhones has been particularly interesting to me. Sure, I want more screen space, but the amount extra in the iPhone 5 is not exactly going to change my world. Sure, I’d love a faster processor, but 90% of the time it’s really irrelevant to me. Touch ID is a nice gimmick right now, but not particularly useful. I believe Touch ID will become more useful in the future, but by then there will probably be a new iPhone anyways.

That said, it makes it a simple decision to wait for a newer model, that maybe will have an even bigger screen, an even faster processor, a more advanced Touch ID sensor, etc.

Envelope from China
Envelope from China

One thing I could not wait for, however, was a new battery. Batteries don’t last forever, and certainly smartphones that never get turned off are not the best environments for keeping batteries healthy. My battery was causing me all kinds of problems. Sometimes within an hour of getting up in the morning, my phone would die. Sometimes my phone would be over 80% charged and die anyways. Sometimes it would say it was at 1% charge, but last for a long time. Crazy annoying stuff. I found myself carrying around a mophie external battery all the time, to keep my phone topped off and to allow it to boot up when it shut off prematurely (and would say it had no charge when it was still over 80%).

Smartphone repair kit
“Smartphone” repair kit

The easiest option to replace the battery would be to go to one of the many phone repair shops/booths that have popped up everywhere. In my relatively small city, we have half a dozen at least, including I think 3 different ones in the local mall. I didn’t actually ask what it costs to replace a battery at any of these stores, but from past experience I would guess it would not be less than $50, and probably more. I don’t know what the local authorized Apple repair place would charge, but I would guess at least double. There are two big advantages to using a local phone repair store, which is their repair people are experienced opening up and repairing phones, and the turnabout is very quick. On the other hand, if I wanted to replace the battery myself it would take time to get the battery, and I’ve never opened up an iPhone before.

After watching a video or two online, and reading instructions I found at iFixit, I decided I could probably do the repair myself. I went online and found batteries for the iPhone 4s from a store I occasionally order from in China. It’s true I might have been able to find a local seller of iPhone 4s batteries, but they’d probably be expensive, and if I was going to do this myself, I figured I should try to keep it as inexpensive as possible. For about $6, including shipping, I was able to get an iPhone 4S battery shipped to me. I paid an extra $7 for an iPhone repair kit, from which I really only needed the pentalobe screwdriver to remove and replace the two screws on the bottom of the iPhone. Of course, if I ever need to open up an iPhone again, I still have the kit, so depending on your perspective it either cost me $6 or $13. Either way, it’s much cheaper than getting it done for me.

The only big downside was waiting for the package to arrive. In general, when ordering from China it usually takes a couple of weeks to get something. The battery happened to be backordered, however, and it ended up taking just over a month. As I waited several months before deciding to do this, it wasn’t that bad. I was already used to using my mophie battery pack regularly, which made using my phone possible.

3030mAh Battery
“3030mAh” Battery from China

The other downside, potentially, is the quality of the product. I have no idea if the battery is any good. Amazingly the battery advertises its capacity at 3030mAh. Let’s put that into perspective. The original battery capacity is 1430mAh. The latest iPhone 5s has a capacity of 1558mAh. The significantly larger yet-unreleased Samsung Galaxy S5 has a battery with a capacity of 2800 mAh. The battery I found online is marked as being 3030mAh.

My first response to seeing such a large capacity was either the company is lying about the capacity, or it’s going to melt my phone. However, like every other smartphone user who wants to eke out every extra minute of time on my battery, I decided that it was worth a shot. The same store also sold a battery with a 1430 mAh capacity, like the original one, but the price difference was a few pennies, and I might as well try for more than double my original capacity, right? In reality I don’t think the capacity is nearly that high, but I just hope the capacity of the 3030mAh is still better than the one labeled 1430mAh.

The package from China arrived today. First things first, I backed up my iPhone and copied all the photos and videos off of it. I figured there’s a more than tiny chance that I could destroy my phone. Then I opened up the iFixit instructions and skimmed them and the comments. I recommend always reading comments on pages like these, because different people run into different problems. One person, for example, tried to remove his battery with a screwdriver instead of the plastic pry tool as recommended, and short-circuited his logic board. Another person stripped one of the pentalobe screws that holds the phone together. These are good things to know about before jumping in and taking apart the phone.

iPhone 4s - open with new battery
My iPhone with the new battery installed

Taking apart the phone was actually a bit anti-climactic. Opening up the phone was simple. Removing the battery was mildly more difficult, as you need to remove 2 tiny screws, take out a small metal piece, and pry out the battery which is glued to the case. Putting in the new battery is just a reversal of those steps. Overall the whole thing took about 10 minutes. A month waiting for the battery, about 20 minutes making sure everything was properly backed up, and just 10 minutes to do the actually battery replacement.

After the battery was back in and the case put back together, I powered up the phone (with a bit of trepidation) and everything started up normally. The battery showed a charge of 18% and I plugged it into my mophie battery pack and let it charge up to 100% (I would have plugged it in to the wall or my computer, but I was running out the door).

So far so good. Do I believe the battery is really 3030mAh? No way. Do I really care? No. I just want it to work better than my original battery. If it just works as my battery did when I bought the phone, that will be good enough. Almost anything is better than what I was going through before I replaced the battery.

Might I have gotten a better battery if I had it replaced through the official Apple repair shop here in Israel (a half hour drive and a week or two turnaround)? Sure. Would the battery have been any better if I had used one of the low-cost repair shops in town? Maybe. Maybe not. For $6, this seemed the right move. We’ll see how the battery preforms over time.

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Will Remove Apps
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UX Note – Removing Apps from an iDevice

Will Remove Apps
Designating apps to be removed in iTunes

Apple is great at making things ‘just work’ which is why when things go wrong with Apple, it’s that much worse. This is just a quick note on a user experience (UX) issue that bothers me about how Apple syncs iDevices. I’ll preface this by saying that since Apple liberated their iDevices from the tether of iTunes, I think they’ve put a lot less focus into improving the iTunes experience. This issue, however, I believe long pre-dates Apple eliminating the need for iTunes.

If your iDevice is full, you need to remove data from the device to make room for new photos, videos, etc. Sometimes you can just offload your photos and videos to make room for more, but sometimes you want clear out more space, so you need to remove apps. There are a few ways to do this:

  1. Hold down an app in the Springboard view (aka the Home Page) until it starts jiggling. Press the ⓧ in the corner of the app icon, and approve it’s deletion. Find other apps to delete and continue the process. Upside, can be fairly quick. Downside, no way to know which apps take up the most room.
  2. Go to Settings > General > Usage and see what is taking up space on your iDevice, sorted by what is taking up the most space. Upside, you know which apps take up the most space so you don’t need to waste time deleting apps that might not make much of a difference. Downside, it can be infuriatingly slow to calculate your usage and display the space used by everything.
  3. Connect your iDevice to your computer, and delete the apps in the Apps panel of the iDevice in iTunes. Downside, does not immediately delete anything. Upside, can quickly and easily sort apps by size, name, kind, category and date – making it very easy to figure out which apps to delete.

It’s the last one I’m focused on here. While not immediate, it is the easiest way to go through your apps and figure out which ones to delete. However, there one really dumb thing about the way this works. Let’s throw out some numbers. Let’s say you only have 50mb of space on your iPhone. You’ve added 200mb of music to sync on your computer. Simple math shows you need 150mb of space on your iPhone for this to work. So you go to the Apps tab and tell it to remove 500mb of apps from your iPhone. Should work right? No, not really. It’s pretty simple, Apple should try deleting things before copying new things to your iDevice. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. Instead it tells you there isn’t enough room on your iDevice to finish syncing.

Why? I have no idea. Syncing isn’t a new concept. Apple has been syncing from the Mac to cell phones since long before the iPhone (remember iSync?). It seems pretty logical to me that if one of your sync steps is to remove data from a device, that that should be done first. Instead, you’re forced to go with option one or two above, just to make room for the sync to happen.

 

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