How can we have an intelligent and reasoned debate about mobile device forensics?
I woke up early this morning after getting back late from this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. It has been a long week and I’ve been moderating and speaking at various events on cyber security and encryption throughout the week. It won’t have escaped anyone’s notice that the “Apple encryption issue” as everyone seems to have referred to it, has been at the top of the news and I have been asked what I think pretty much every day this week. Late last night, I’d seen a twitter spat kicking off between comedy writer and director Graham Linehan and Piers Morgan on the topic, but went to bed, exhausted from the week.
It was still being talked about this morning. My friend Pat Walshe who is one of the world’s leading mobile industry privacy specialists, had quoted a tweet from Piers Morgan:
I could take that terrorist iPhone down to Tottenham Court Road right now & they'd get into it. Safely. Apple is lying.
— Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan) February 27, 2016
Ironically, Piers Morgan himself has been accused of overseeing the hacking of phones, something which he has repeatedly denied, despite Mirror Group Newspapers admitting that some stories may have been obtained by illegal means during his tenure and having recently paid compensation to victims of phone (voicemail) hacking, a topic about which I have written in the past.
This week I’ll be up at York St John University where they’ve asked me to teach cyber security to their undergraduate computer scientists. The reason I agreed to teach there was because they highly value ethical concerns, something which I will be weaving into all our discussions this week. The biggest question these students will have this week will be the “what would you do?” scenario in relation to the San Bernadino case.
The truth is, this is not a question of technology engineering and encryption, it is a question of policy and what we as a society want and expect.
The moral aspects have been widely debated with Apple’s Tim Cook bringing, in my view, the debate to a distasteful low by somehow linking the issue to cancer. I’ve tried to stay out of the debate up until now because it has become a circus of people who don’t understand the technical aspects pontificating about how easy it is to break into devices versus encryption activists who won’t accept anything less than “encrypt all the things” (some of whom also don’t understand the technical bits). I sincerely hope that there isn’t a backlash on me here from either side for just voicing an opinion, some friends of mine have deliberately stayed quiet because of this – I’m exercising my right to free speech and I hope people respect that.
The truth is, this is not a question of technology engineering and encryption, it is a question of policy and what we as a society want and expect. If a member of my family is murdered do I expect the police to be able to do their job and investigate everything that was on that person’s phone? Absolutely. Conversely, if I was accused of a crime that I didn’t commit and I wasn’t in a position to handover the password (see Matthew Green’s muddy puddle test), would I also want them to do it? Of course. It is called justice.
Dealing with the world as it is
The mobile phones and digital devices of today replace all of our previous scraps of notepaper, letters, diaries, pictures etc that would have been left around our lives. If someone is murdered or something horrific happens to someone, this information could be used to enable the lawful investigation of a crime. The Scenes of Crime Officer of the past and defence team would have examined all of these items and ultimately present the evidence in court, contributing to a case for or against. Now consider today’s world. Everything is on our phone – our diaries and notes are digital, our pictures are on our phones, our letters are emails or WhatsApp messages. So in the case of the scene of a crime, the police may literally be faced with a body and a phone. How is the crime solved and how is justice done? The digital forensic data is the case.
Remember, someone who has actually committed a crime is probably going to say they didn’t do it. The phone data itself is usually more reliable than witnesses and defendant testimony in telling the story of what actually happened and criminals know that. I’ve been involved with digital forensics for mobile devices in the past and have seen first-hand the conviction of criminals who continually denied having committed a serious crime, despite their phone data stating otherwise. This has brought redress to their victim’s families and brought justice for someone who can no longer speak.
There is no easy answer
On the other side of course, we’re carrying these objects around with us every day and the information can be intensely private. We don’t want criminals or strangers to steal that information. The counter-argument is that the mechanisms and methods to facilitate access to encrypted material would fall into the hands of the bad guys. And this is the challenge we face – there is absolutely no easy answer to this. People are also worried that authoritarian regimes will use the same tools to help further oppress their citizens and make it easier for the state to set people up. Sadly I think that is going to happen anyway in some of those places, with or without this issue being in play.
US companies are also fighting hard to sell products globally and they need to recover their export position following the Snowden revelations. It is in their business interests to be seen to fight these orders in order to s
ell product. It appears that Tim Cook wants to reinforce Apple’s privacy marketing message through this fight. Other less scrupulous countries are probably rubbing their hands in glee watching this show, whilst locally banning encryption, knowing that they’ll continue doing that and attempting to block US-made technology whatever the outcome of the case.
Even now, I have seen tweets from iPhone hackers who are more than capable of an attempt to solve this current case and no doubt they would gain significant amounts financially from doing so – because the method that they develop could potentially be transferable.
Question for those that have actually reversed it: auto erase/time delay for iPhone 5c is implemented in userspace, kernel driver, iboot?
— Stefan Esser (@i0n1c) February 24, 2016
This is the same battle that my colleagues in the mobile world fight on a daily basis – a hole is found and exploited and we fix it; a continual technological arms race to see who can do the better job. Piers Morgan has a point, just badly put – given enough time, effort and money the San Bernadino device and encryption could be broken into – it will just be a hell of a lot. It won’t be broken by a guy in a shop on Tottenham Court Road (see my talk on the history of mobile phone hacking to understand this a bit more).
Something that has not been discussed is that we also have a ludicrous situation now whereby private forensic companies seem to be ‘developing’ methods to get into mobile handsets when in actual fact many of them will either re-package hacking and rooting tools and pass them off as their own solutions, as well as purchasing from black and grey markets for exploits, at premium prices. This is very frustrating for the mobile industry as it contributes to security problems. Meanwhile, the Police are being forced to try and do their jobs with not just one hand tied behind their back, it now seems like two. So what should we do about that? What do we consider to be “forensically certified” if the tools are based on fairly dirty hacks?
How do we solve the problem?
We as democratic societies ask and expect our Police forces to be able to investigate crimes under a legal framework that we all accept via the people we elect to Parliament or Senate. If the law needs to be tested, then that should happen through a court – which is exactly what is happening now in the US. What we’re seeing is democracy in action, it’s just messy but at least people in the US and the UK have that option. Many people around the world do not.
On the technical side, we will need to also consider that there are also a multitude of connected devices coming to the market for smart homes, connected cars and things we haven’t even thought of yet as part of the rapidly increasing “Internet of Things”. I hate to say it, but in the future, digital forensics is going to become ever more complex and perhaps the privacy issues for individuals will centre on what a few large technology companies are doing behind your back with your own data rather than the Police trying to do their job with a legal warrant. Other companies need to be ready to step up to ensure consumers are not the product.
I don’t have a clear solution to the overall issue of encrypted devices and I don’t think you’ll thank me for writing another thousand words on the topic of key escrow. Most of the time I respond to people by saying it is significantly complex. The issues we are wrestling with now do need to be debated, but that debate needs to be intellectually sound and unfortunately we are hearing a lot from people with loud voices, but less from the people who really understand. The students I’m meeting next week will be not only our future engineers, but possibly future leaders of companies and even politicians so it is important that they understand every angle. It will also be their future and every other young person’s that matters in the final decision over San Bernadino.
Personally, I just hope that I don’t keep getting angry and end up sat in my dressing gown until lunchtime writing about tweets I saw at breakfast time.