Snowden: FBI Claim That Only Apple Can Unlock Phone Is “Bullshit”

The NSA whistleblower expressed strong doubts about the FBI's insistence that Apple has the exclusive technical means to unlock a terrorist's iPhone.

Photo: Common Cause

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden says the FBI’s ostensibly last-ditch attempt to unlock San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizwan Farook’s iPhone is a sham.

The FBI last month persuaded a federal judge that the only way to get into the phone was to make Apple write code to undermine its own security protocols. Apple is refusing to comply.

“The FBI says Apple has the ‘exclusive technical means’” to unlock the phone, Snowden said during a discussion at Common Cause’s Blueprint for Democracy conference.

“Respectfully, that’s bullshit,” he said, over a video link from Moscow.

Here’s the discussion, which also included Malkia Cyril, executive director of the Center for Media Justice, and Dan Froomkin, Washington editor of The Intercept. The comments in question come at about the 30-minute mark.

Snowden further explained on Twitter: “The global technological consensus is against the FBI,” he wrote — linking to a blog post on the American Civil Liberties Union website explaining exactly how the FBI could have bypassed the iPhone’s auto-erase function on its own. That’s “one example,” he wrote.

Other technologists have explained how the FBI could have easily accessed the phone’s latest iCloud backup if agents working with San Bernardino County had not reset the iCloud password.

Even so, security researchers say there are other options, like “de-capping” the phone’s memory chip to access it outside the phone (which Snowden has also mentioned), or resetting the phone’s internal counter so that you can guess the passwords as many times as you want. Those techniques are hard and expensive and could destroy the phone, experts say — but have worked in the past.

And that’s not to mention any shadowy tactics the spies from the government’s intelligence community might have. The NSA and CIA have worked for almost 10 years to develop ways to hack into Apple devices, as revealed by The Intercept last year.

The key may be that none of those ways would be nearly as easy for the FBI as making Apple do it — this time, and from now on.

The NSA has been mysteriously absent from the FBI-Apple fight. Conceivably, it tried and failed to hack the phone, but that seems unlikely. Another possibility is that the NSA was excluded on purpose, so the FBI could create a test case.

Join The Conversation