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It is “impossible” to access encrypted data on the vast majority of iPhones, Apple has told a US federal judge in a New York court.
In a brief that was filed on Monday night at the request of magistrate judge James Orenstein, the tech giant explained that it lacks the “technical ability” to hack into smartphones that are operating iOS 8 or higher.
Apple said that the request from the US Department of Justice to “perform forensic services” on a device in the custody of the government is not only unfeasible, but also “substantially burdensome”.“Apple cannot take possession of a password protected device … and extract encrypted user data from that device for the government.”
It stated: “[Apple cannot] take possession of a password protected device … and extract encrypted user data from that device for the government.
“Among the security features in iOS 8 is a feature that prevents anyone without the device’s passcode from accessing the encrypted data. This includes Apple.”
It added that as of October 5th, approximately 90 percent of Apple devices are running iOS 8 or higher – all of these, in effect, cannot be accessed by the company.
This is the latest development in what is an ongoing case between Apple and other tech companies and the government over data encryption.
Interestingly, in this instance, the iPhone in questions is running on a version of iOS 7, which Apple can actually hack.
However, even this isn’t absolute. In the brief it said that its ability to access encrypted data depends on multiple factors, including whether or not the smartphone is in good working order.
However, beyond the technical challenges, as well as the associated physical and monetary costs, the request to perform such an action leaves Apple in an uncomfortable position.
It noted that presently there is an “unprecedented level” of public sensitivity over issues that relate to digital security and privacy.
“This is true not only with respect to illegal hacking by criminals but also in the area of government access – both disclosed and covert,” Apple expanded in the document to the US judge.
“Apple has taken a leadership role in the protection of its customer’s personal data against any form of improper access.
“Forcing Apple to extract data in this case, absent clear legal authority to do so, could threaten the trust between Apple and its customers and substantially tarnish the Apple brand.”
This case has highlighted the clear divide between what tech companies believe is acceptable and what the US government and its international counterparts consider morally and legally justified.
Speaking last year, James Comey, the seventh director of the FBI, told members of the press that efforts by the likes of Apple and Google to boost privacy features on their devices had left the agency “very concerned”.
He said that that while “no one in this country is beyond the law”, these developments to bolster encryption will allow individuals to bypass the legal system for all sorts of malicious reasons.
“There will come a day … when it will matter a great, great deal to the lives of people of all kinds that we be able to, with judicial authorization, gain access to a kidnapper’s or a terrorist or a criminal’s device,” Mr. Comey said at the time.
“I just want to make sure we have a good conversation in this country before that day comes. I’d hate to have people look at me and say, ‘Well, how come you can’t save this kid,’ ‘how come you can’t do this thing?'”
Author Karl Thomas, ESET