Early Friday evening, Apple invited at least two batches of reporters to separate conference calls. (There were rules*.) This was just hours after the Justice Department filed a motion for a court order that would compel Apple to assist the FBI, framing the company’s refusal to cooperate as a PR stunt.
During the call, a senior Apple executive said that if a government employee hadn’t messed up and accidentally reset the San Bernardino shooter’s iCloud password, Apple may not have been conscripted into the data recovery attempt. Why? The government might have been able to access the account without Apple’s help.
Update 2/20 2pm: So—to be clear—it appears that it was a local San Bernardino employee who messed up, and not the FBI.
Update 2/20 7pm: And as it turns out, San Bernardino County is contesting the FBI’s depiction of events. In a tweet today, the County said it was working with the FBI when it changed the iCloud password.
Even with an untouched iCloud password, the government still may have needed Apple’s help, but Apple is portraying that screw-up as a major error. Essentially, Apple is saying that the government may have been able to access this data with ease. Now, we’ll never know, because changing the password made iCloud auto-backup impossible.
Apple offered the government four alternative techniques to help it access the phone’s data, as an alternate to creating a special software, the executive told reporters. This is a very different scenario than the one portrayed in the government’s motion, which paints Apple as thoroughly uncooperative.
But there is one thing the government and Apple agree on: It is technically possible for Apple to write the kind of software in demand. In fact, the executive admitted that the Cupertino company would be able to write this software not only for its newest phones but also for all phones it has in use. And that’s one of the reasons Apple insists that the burden of writing the software is far too great—any software it creates could act as a master key.
Apple hasn’t revealed exactly how far it will go before it acquiesces. However, this will likely have an impact on how it designs security measures in the future. Apple may design them to make it technically impossible to force the company to comply.
What’s clear, though, is that this battle will be fought with spin on both sides in an attempt to influence public opinion. Apple CEO Tim Cook as well as FBI director James Comey have been invited to appear before the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. We hope we’re invited.
* - The conditions of this call: no names and no direct quotes. That’s why I’m paraphrasing so much.