Apple vs. FBI: How iOS 8 changed everything

The battle over iPhone encryption began 18 months ago, Bloomberg reports.

iPhone 5c
Credit: Robert Cardin

Apple and the FBI meet in court on Tuesday for the first hearing in the showdown over iPhone encryption, but this fight has been brewing since Apple introduced iOS 8 in June 2014.

A new Bloomberg report reveals that the FBI and Apple both expected the White House to take their side before the fight went public.

It all started with iOS 8

According to Bloomberg’s sources, Apple’s top lawyer, Bruce Sewell, met with officials in President Barack Obama’s administration shortly after the Worldwide Developers Conference in 2014 to discuss iOS 8’s security and privacy changes.

Law enforcement agencies had been concerned about Apple’s encryption efforts for years, but iOS 8 solidified the company’s stance: It would still help officials tap into iCloud accounts, but data that lives on an iPhone was off limits. Not even Apple could access that information.

The FBI wasn’t happy about the developments, and agency director James Comey said as much publicly back in 2014, but the White House stayed out of it.

Apple iPhone 5C (3) Martyn Williams

The iPhone 5c used in the San Bernardino shooting was running iOS 9.

Apple thought the White House was on its side

The FBI was on Apple’s case, but the company believed the Obama administration was more sympathetic to its position. According to Bloomberg, Apple CEO Tim Cook is no stranger to the White House—he has met with officials there 14 times in the last six years. The company also worked with White House officials to convince China that smartphone makers shouldn’t have to build a backdoor into their devices.

Obama also didn’t support legislation that would have made it easier for law enforcement to get into smartphones. But that didn’t mean the administration was pro-Apple when it came to encryption, even if that’s how both the FBI and Apple construed the situation.

obama sxsw

President Barack Obama supports the FBI’s case, but is also a fan of encryption.

FBI went public because White House wouldn’t

That’s when things started to heat up. Apple began refusing to help agencies unlock iPhones, even when the data wasn’t encrypted on the device and the company presumably could help, Bloomberg reported:

If the White House wasn’t going to push for new legislation, Comey and other FBI officials decided to become more outspoken about their concerns with encryption, said Taddeo, who is now the chief security officer for cybersecurity company Cryptzone. He said FBI officials were determined to air a “deliberate and open understanding of the risks.”

And so it did. On Feb. 16, a magistrate judge sided with the FBI and ordered Apple to unlock the iPhone 5c owned by Syed Farook, the shooter in a mass killing in San Bernardino last December. Apple is still fighting that order.

In front of a room full of techies at South by Southwest Interactive in Austin, Texas earlier this month, President Obama sounded hopeful that maybe a middle ground exists between an uncrackable version of iOS and a government backdoor, but Apple maintains that it’s not possible to make a tool that won’t find its way into the wild.

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