Snowden Speaks Up

Tech and politics seem to be butting heads more than ever.

The controversy regarding the argument between the FBI and tech mogul Apple has attracted plenty of media attention; a whole array of experts in fields spanning from human rights to cybercrime have seen fit to chime in. Now perhaps the most influential figure in the debate regarding government surveillance (indeed, the man who basically spurred the debate) has stepped forward to comment on this issue.

Former member of the United States National Security Agency and whistle blower Edward Snowden recently claimed that the government’s stance on forcing Apple to create a backdoor to their encryption was “bullsh*t.”

He made this statement during a filmed conversation between him and Malkia Cyril, the executive director of the Center for Media Justice, and Dan Froomkin, the Washington editor of The Intercept. The talk took place during Common Cause’s Blueprint for Democracy conference.

A fair amount of experts have criticized Snowden’s statement.

“Does Snowden really matter anymore?” asked principal analyst at Tiris Research Jim McGregor. “I think he’s just looking for publicity,” McGregor stated.

Vice President at Vasco Data Security John Gunn was less vindictive in his perspective, but also believed that Snowden’s reaction wasn’t worth much comment, stating that it will likely have “very little effect” on the course of the argument.

Snowden is “a polarizing element,” continued Gunn. People tend to see him either “as a traitor or the reincarnation of Thomas Jefferson and a patriot willing to give his own life to protect our liberty.”

appleSnowden claimed that the FBI could bypass Apple’s auto-erase feature simply by backing up the effaceable storage on the iPhone before trying to guess the passcode. He highlighted ACLU Technology Fellow Daniel Gillmor’s outline of the potential alternate approach that the FBI could take.

Gillmore had further pointed out that auto-erase doesn’t actually erase all the data from the iPhone’s underlying storage. He explained that it only destroys one of the keys that protects the data, namely the file system key.

Although the destruction of that key renders the data permanently unreadable, the effaceable storage remains in the iPhone’s NAND flash memory. That means if the FBI simply copies that flash memory before trying to crack the passcode, the NAND memory could be restored from its backup copy.

The technique is actually relatively simple when all is said and done; apparently it’s a fairly common procedure performed by kiosks in Chinese malls to upgrade 16-GB iPhones to 128-GB. The whole thing costs Chinese buyers somewhere around US $60.

iphone encryptionThe point being, the FBI has alternative options that its pretending it doesn’t. The bureau could also just desconstruct the chip on the device in order to read the fuse bank where the UID is stored. Provided that chip is extracted, the FBI could reverse-engineer the rest of Apple’s encryption and brute force it against the PIN.

The list of potential alternatives goes on and on, leading many followers of the debate to conclude that the FBI likely “wants the rules set in their favor for all future instnaces,” (Gunn). “Petty criminals don’t incite the level of fear that it takes for people to be willing to sacrifice their constitutional rights.” Perhaps the FBI were just waiting for terrorists like those of San Bernardino to push their agenda.

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