In 2016, Apple made headlines for its refusal to unlock an iPhone at the insistence of law enforcement. What the technological giant’s CEO Tim Cook called a defense of civil liberties was lauded by privacy activists and civil libertarians worldwide. Cracking open iOS devices used to be a surveillance state pipe dream, but a prominent U.S. government contractor may have found a way to do just that.
Cellebrite, an Israeli company focused on “empowering law enforcement, military and intelligence,” publicly boasted about their abilities to unlock pretty much any iOS device currently available on the market. In a data sheet published on the company’s official website, in a separate section listing the devices supported for “advanced unlocking and extraction services,” Cellebrite noted that it has the ability to break the security of “Apple iOS devices and operating systems, including iPhone, iPad, iPad mini, iPad Pro and iPod touch, running iOS 5 to iOS 11.”
The privacy section on Apple’s official website states the following.
“At Apple, we believe privacy is a fundamental human right. And so much of your personal information — information you have a right to keep private — lives on your Apple devices. Your heart rate after a run. Which news stories you read first. Where you bought your last coffee. What websites you visit. Who you call, email, or message.Every Apple product is designed from the ground up to protect that information. And to empower you to choose what you share and with whom. We’ve proved time and again that great experiences don’t have to come at the expense of your privacy and security. Instead, they can support them.”
This precedent, and seemingly a major victory for the surveillance state, was confirmed by sources, who asked to remain anonymous, to Forbes magazine. Furthermore, Forbes obtained a warrant of what is probably the first known government inspection of an iPhone X, Apple’s newest smartphone. The warrant, a probe into a suspect in an arms trafficking case, does not reveal what data has the law enforcement obtained, but it does show that the suspect’s iPhone X was sent to a Cellebrite specialist at the Department of Homeland Security in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
This, according to Forbes writer Thomas Fox-Brewster, is a “significant moment for law enforcement, not just in America, but across the globe.” With each new release, iPhone has improved its security with layers upon layers of encryption, but it seems their devices, even the newest ones, are not impenetrable after all.
The famous whistleblower and a vocal critic of the surveillance state, Edward Snowden, shared his thoughts in a tweet. “The only compelling reason for someone to buy an iPhone over more open, less expensive competitors was Apple’s stronger stance on users’ right to privacy and security,” Snowden wrote, adding that this “threatens the core of an iPhone’s value.”
For the longest time, Apple’s key product was something you cannot buy: a commitment to privacy.
Has Apple failed its faithful customers? Edward Snowden’s sentiment – that Apple’s stance on users’ right to privacy and security is the only compelling reason for someone to buy an iOS device – might not be shared by the average iPhone owner, but privacy advocates probably feel the same way.
Apple has still not responded to Cellebrite’s claims that it can crack open iOS devices and help law enforcement in what is a perfectly fine way to pursuit criminal justice to some, and a colossal threat to civil liberties to others.