Apple VP: The FBI Wants To Roll Back Safeguards That Keep Us A Step Ahead Of Criminals


By Craig Federighi 

As the head of software engineering at Apple, I think nothing is more important than the safety of all of our customers. Even as we strive to deliver delightful experiences to users of iPhones, iPads and Macs, our team must work tirelessly to stay one step ahead of criminal attackers who seek to pry into personal information and even co-opt devices to commit broader assaults that endanger us all. Sadly, these threats only grow more serious and sophisticated over time.

In just the past 18 months, hackers have repeatedly breached the defenses of retail chains, banks and even the federal government, making off with the credit card information, Social Security numbers and fingerprint records of millions of people.

But the threat to our personal information is just the tip of the iceberg. Your phone is more than a personal device. In today’s mobile, networked world, it’s part of the security perimeter that protects your family and co-workers. Our nation’s vital infrastructure – such as power grids and transportation hubs – becomes more vulnerable when individual devices get hacked. Criminals and terrorists who want to infiltrate systems and disrupt sensitive networks may start their attacks through access to just one person’s smartphone.

That’s why my team works so hard to stay ahead.

The encryption technology built into today’s iPhone represents the best data security available to consumers. And cryptographic protections on the device don’t just help prevent unauthorized access to your personal data – they’re also a critical line of defense against criminals who seek to implant malware or spyware and to use the device of an unsuspecting person to gain access to a business, public utility or government agency.

Of course, despite our best efforts, nothing is 100 percent secure. Humans are fallible. Our engineers write millions of lines of code, and even the very best can make mistakes. A mistake can become a point of weakness, something for attackers to exploit. Identifying and fixing those problems are critical parts of our mission to keep customers safe. Doing anything to hamper that mission would be a serious mistake.

That’s why it’s so disappointing that the FBI, Justice Department and others in law enforcement are pressing us to turn back the clock to a less-secure time and less-secure technologies. They have suggested that the safeguards of iOS 7 were good enough and that we should simply go back to the security standards of 2013. But the security of iOS 7, while cutting-edge at the time, has since been breached by hackers. What’s worse, some of their methods have been productized and are now available for sale to attackers who are less skilled but often more malicious.

To get around Apple’s safeguards, the FBI wants us to create a backdoor in the form of special software that bypasses passcode protections, intentionally creating a vulnerability that would let the government force its way into an iPhone. Once created, this software – which law enforcement has conceded it wants to apply to many iPhones – would become a weakness that hackers and criminals could use to wreak havoc on the privacy and personal safety of us all.

I became an engineer because I believe in the power of technology to enrich our lives. Great software has seemingly limitless potential to solve human problems – and it can spread around the world in the blink of an eye. Malicious code moves just as quickly, and when software is created for the wrong reason, it has a huge and growing capacity to harm millions of people.

Security is an endless race – one that you can lead but never decisively win. Yesterday’s best defenses cannot fend off the attacks of today or tomorrow. Software innovations of the future will depend on the foundation of strong device security. We cannot afford to fall behind those who would exploit technology in order to cause chaos. To slow our pace, or reverse our progress, puts everyone at risk.

The writer is senior vice president of software engineering at Apple. He first joined Apple in 1997.

(C) 2016, The Washington Post · Craig Federighi