It’s About Security, not Privacy


The mainstream press has been devoting a significant amount of coverage to the case of the FBI vs. Apple Computer. They often characterize the trade-off as between Privacy vs. Security. The Privacy of the individual vs. the Security of society. However this comparison is flawed. The real trade-off is between Security and Security. Between making the job of the FBI a little easier in exchange for introducing significant security vulnerabilities in the core fabric of our increasingly electronic and computerized world.

A subtext of this trade-off is the reality that security enforced by procedures is fragile at best and useless at worst. Read on for a more detailed treatment of this statement.

Its Not About Privacy

When we talk about privacy, we worry about many things. In particular the revelations made by Edward Snowden have caused people to be concerned about widespread government surveillance. Whether or not those fears are justified or not is beyond what I want to discuss here. But I will assert that the Apple vs. FBI case is not about surveillance, nor is it really about Privacy. The demand the Government is making here is to facilitate accessing a specific single phone, when a Court Order is issued. Of course there has been discussion about whether or not it is about this particular phone, or about any number of phones for whom the Government has a subpoena or Court Order to access. However, no matter how many phones may be affected, it is about specific devices involved in specific crimes where specific orders have been written. It is not about being able to perform mass surveillance on unidentified phones not mentioned in a Court Order. What the FBI is asking for would not facilitate such mass surveillance.

Why is it about Security?

Review: What the FBI is asking for

In a recent Court Order obtained by the FBI, the FBI is demanding that Apple Computer write software designed to circumvent an important security control in iOS, the operating system of the iPhone. The particular iPhone in question belongs to the City of San Bernardino and was in possession of the San Bernardino shooter. Although he destroyed his personal phone (and that of his wife) he did not destroy this phone, his work phone. However this phone is locked, which also means that its internal memory is encrypted. The PIN used to unlock the phone is part of the key encrypting the phone. The FBI could try to “brute-force” the PIN by trying every possible combination. However there are two protections built into the phone that makes this difficult. The first one is that after a certain number of incorrect tries, the phone will stop accepting new attempts for a period of time, ultimately requiring an hour between each retry. The second mechanism which may or may not be enabled on this phone, is a feature to erase the phone’s memory after a small number of incorrect attempts to guess the PIN.

Apple cannot decrypt the phone without knowing the PIN, and the FBI is not asking Apple to do so. Instead the FBI is asking that Apple build a special version of iOS to be installed on this particular phone which will disable the time delay penalty for incorrect PIN guesses and also disable the automatic erase feature, if it is enabled. The FBI would also like Apple to create a mechanism to permit PIN guesses to be submitted via the phone’s USB port. So a computer connected to the phone can cycle through PIN guesses instead of having a person attempt to enter each guess by hand on the phone keypad. The FBI has also stated in the Court Order that Apple can build in protections in this special version of iOS to ensure that it only runs on this particular phone 1.

It is worth mentioning that this does not ensure that the FBI will actually successfully guess the PIN. If it is a simple PIN, like a four digit (numeric only) PIN, then they will certainly get in. However if it is a 16 characters password including alphabetic characters as well as digits, it may take a very long time to find the correct PIN even with removing the artificial incorrect guess delay and having an electronic port to make guesses.

Why Only Apple Can Do This

One of the important security features of the iPhone (and Android phones as well) is that the phone will only execute an operating system (aka iOS) if it is digitally signed by its manufacturer. In this case, Apple Computer. In order to “sign” a software update, Apple has to use a secret “private key” which can create the appropriate digital signature. By only loading signed software updates, an iPhone knows that it is running authentic software from Apple, and for example not malicious software designed to steal information or make phone calls to expensive telephone numbers or any number of other malicious activities.

Critical to this security is keeping this special signing key a secret. If a malicious actor can steal this key, they can create bogus iPhone software and distribute it to unsuspecting victims.

Keeping Secrets is HARD

Keeping secrets like the Apple signing key is very difficult. The secret is itself very small, probably only 1000 bytes at max. At this small size it can be ex-filtrated via a thumb drive, an e-mail message, uploaded to a social media account using a web browser. You name it.

Disclosure of the secret does not deprive the owner access to the secret. In other words if the key is stolen, Apple would not necessarily know it! Very valuable secrets are worth significant investment on the part of a bad actor to steal it.

How to Keep a Signing Key Secret

Fortunately there are technology solutions that help protect secret signing keys. Most high value signing keys are not stored on a computer, but within a specially designed Hardware Security Module (HSM). An HSM stores the key (the key itself may well have been created inside the HSM and has never been outside of it). 2 When you want to sign a document, like a software update, you submit it to the HSM which then creates the signature and returns it. To improve security the HSM will typically require the insertion of one or several special “Crypto Ignition Key” (CIK). The CIKs themselves are actually data storage devices which contain a key of their own. The HSM will often only have a part of the signing key inside it. The rest is delivered by a combination of the CIKs. By distributing the different CIKs to different individuals, you can ensure that multiple people are required to perform a signature.

Secure Signing is Expensive

Requiring an HSM and the presence of several individuals, each with a CIK, means that creating a signature is an expensive process. The individuals involved in signing a software update of an iPhone are probably senior people, who are likely very busy. They probably do not carry their CIKs with them, but store them in a vault, which they will have to visit to get them. Although this is a time consuming, expensive process, it is likely tolerable to the individuals involved because it is a very infrequent event. Only when a new software release is ready for shipping does this ceremony need to be performed. So we are talking about something like once or twice per year.

Secure Signing Doesn’t Scale

Secure Signing doesn’t scale. And this is important. If you understand human nature, you will know that if you require people to perform a time consuming function frequently, they will look for ways to reduce the amount of time required. One obvious approach is to carry the CIK (or leave it in your desk) rather then put it in a vault. I know of one situation where a person stored the CIK for an important signing key in a coffee cup on a shelf in his office. This way if a signing was necessary and he wasn’t around, he could tell a co-worker where to find it (even though he was supposed to be personally involved in the signing operation).

If the FBI Wins, we all lose

If the FBI wins, we will need secure signing at scale. Why? Well as others have said, and the Government has admitted, there are more then one iPhone in the queue to be decrypted. Although the FBI has stated that the Court Order is about just one phone, the reality is that it is about many. For once the FBI wins this order, the precedent is set to require Apple to install similar software on other phones.

However the FBI in the order in front of us has stated that Apple can build the new software image to only operate on the one phone in question. So whatever software Apple writes, and more importantly signs, will only operate on one phone. So when a Court Order is submitted for the next phone, Apple will have to modify the software and sign yet another software update, for this next phone. However, signing is expensive and hard, when done the way that Apple is likely doing it 3 so over time if Apple continues to receive orders, they will need to have a less expensive process to sign software updates.

However a less burdensome process will likely devolve from one where several people are required to sign an update (with special purpose hardware) to one where one person, out of several of a group, will be able to sign an update on their own. These people will likely not be senior officers, but lower level employees. Over time, unless great care is taken, the signing process will devolve to one where stealing the signing key becomes feasible. Either bribe one of the people who have access to the key, or compromise their credentials, break into the physical location, whatever is necessary. My point is that a key used frequently, and a key used to sign updates needed to answer Government orders will be used frequently, is an insecure key.

When this key is compromised the security of every iPhone is significantly weakened. This is why this is about security. Make no mistake, if the Government forces Apple to unlock this one iPhone, the SECURITY of every iPhone will be affected.

A group of security minded researchers and practitioners wrote a paper (I’m one of the authors) “Keys Under Doormats: Mandating insecurity by requiring government access to all data and communications.” The paper explains why backdoors are a seriously bad idea.

In some ways, Apple’s Signing key is a backdoor, in that it can be used to subvert the security of the iPhone. At this point Apple probably understands this as well. Fortunately there are ways to close this particular backdoor. One simple way is to require that a phone be unlocked in order to install a software update.

Adding the requirement that a phone be unlocked prior to a software update will protect against the situation where the FBI has possession of a phone involved in a crime, it will not handle the case where the FBI wishes to access a phone belonging to a criminal who still has the phone. It isn’t too hard to image that the FBI might require Apple to tailor a special software update just for this one phone which will permit them unlock it in the future (or just plain extract data from it “on the fly”). Apple can then be required to deliver this specially crafted software update to just this one device using the normal software update mechanism (or a modification of it).

We can argue about whether or not the FBI should compel Apple to invent such a “live” mechanism (though if they win this Court Order, I believe that the door is open to such a requirement) but I’ll leave that for another day. The point I’ll make here is that such a mechanism would again require Apple to sign updates frequently, putting their signing key at risk and making it a backdoor once again.


In general requiring “exceptional” access to devices, be they smart phones, tablets or computers requires introducing mechanisms that decrease the overall security of all such devices. In this post I have mostly focused on the vulnerabilities of signing keys and how exceptional access makes them easier to steal and abuse. However this is but one way that security is weakened. In general exceptional access requires more complex mechanisms to implement then security systems that do not provide for it. Complex systems fail in complex ways. Complex systems by their very nature are less secure because it is harder to reason about their security properties. You can read more about this in “Keys under Doormats.”

The state of systems Security today is pretty abysmal. Not a day goes by that you do not read about yet another breach, at commercial organizations and at government organizations. We should be working hard on improving security for the vast majority of people who are law abiding and innocent rather then decreasing security for all in the hope of making the investigation of the small number of cases a little easier.


1 Each phone has a unique serial number which is known for this phone. The modified iOS software can check this serial number and refuse to run on any other phone.

2 Of course hardware can fail, so most HSM’s have a mechanism to backup the stored signing key in a secure fashion.

3 I am in fact not privy to exactly what Apple is doing to sign software, but I assume that they are using a secure mechanism like I described above

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