Apple exec: Don't "turn back the clock" on iPhone security

Craig Federighi, Apple Senior Vice President, Software Engineering, speaking at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference 2012 in San Francisco. He recently published a Washington Post op-ed calling for the protection of iPhone user privacy.

REUTERS/Stephen Lam

Apple's top software engineer is weighing in on the continuing dispute between Apple and the FBI over unlocking an iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino shooters.

Craig Federighi, the company's senior vice president of software engineering, says it's essential for the company to do everything it can to ensure customers' privacy. In a Washington Post op-ed, Federighi cautioned that in the face of increased threats from hackers and terrorists, it is "disappointing" that "the FBI, Justice Department and others in law enforcement are pressing us to turn back the clock to a less-secure time and less-secure technologies."

Federighi's op-ed is the latest move in a public relations battle between the tech giant and the government, whose dispute is also playing out in the courts. While the Apple executive wrote that his company's engineers need to "stay one step ahead of criminal attackers who seek to pry into personal information and even co-opt devices to commit broader assaults," the FBI fears that sophisticated encryption gives terrorists a digital safe zone in which to plot their attacks. The government is demanding that Apple create software that could bypass the phone's passcode protections.

But Federighi says such a move would have dangerous consequences:

The threat to our personal information is just the tip of the iceberg. Your phone is more than a personal device ... it's part of the security perimeter that protects your family and co-workers. Our nation's vital infrastructure -- such as power grids and transportation hubs -- becomes more vulnerable when individualized devices get hacked. Criminals and terrorists who want to infiltrate systems and disrupt sensitive networks may start their attacks through access to just one person's smartphone. ...

Once created, this software -- which law enforcement has conceded it wants to apply to many iPhones -- would become a weakness that hackers and criminals could use to wreak havoc on the privacy and personal safety of us all.

In a strongly worded court filing in February, the Justice Department struck back at Apple's claims that creating so-called "back door" to access the phone's data would endanger user privacy down the line.

"The order does not, as Apple's public statement alleges, require Apple to create or provide a 'back door' to every iPhone; it does not provide 'hackers and criminals' access to iPhones; it does not require Apple to 'hack [its] own users" or to 'decrypt' its phones; it does not give the government 'the power to reach into anyone's device' without a warrant or court authorization; and it does not compromise the security of personal information," the filing read.

Federighi ended his piece by calling security "an endless race" that one can lead but "never decisively win."

"We cannot afford to fall behind those who would exploit technology in order to cause chaos," he wrote. "To slow our pace, or reverse our progress, puts everyone at risk."

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