Tag Archives: golden key

Apple, the FBI, and the Omnipotence Paradox

“Can God create a rock so heavy He could not lift it?” this is one version of the omnipotence paradox. To make a long story short, ominpotence as a concept leads to similar logical problems as the naïve set-of-sets and sets-containing-themselves constructions in Russel’s paradox. Some use this paradox to question religion; others use it to question logic; and pondering such questions generally seems to belong to the realm of philosophy. But the ongoing new round of (civil) crypto wars is bringing a tranformed version of this paradox into everyone’s pocket.

Can Apple create an encryption mechanism so strong that even Apple cannot break it? Apple claims so, at least for the particular situation, in their defense against the FBI’s request for help with unlocking a dead terrorist’s iPhone: “As a result of these stronger protections that require data encryption, we are no longer able to use the data extraction process on an iPhone running iOS 8 or later.” Although some residual risk of unknown vulnerabilities remains, this claim seems believable as far as it concerns retroactive circumvention of security defenses. Just as a locksmith can make a lock that will be as hard to break for its maker as for any other locksmith, a gadgetsmith can make gadgets without known backdoors or weaknesses that this gadgetsmith might exploit. This is challenging, but possible.

However, the security of any encryption mechanism hinges on the integrity of key components, such as the encryption algorithm, its implementation, auxiliary functions like key generation and their implementation, and the execution environment of these functions. The maker of a gadget can always weaken it for future access.

Should Apple be allowed to make and sell devices with security mechanisms so strong that neither Apple nor anyone else can break or circumvent them in the course of legitimate investigations? This is the real question here, and a democratic state based on justice and integrity has established institutions and procedures to come to a decision and enforce it. As long as Apple does not rise above states and governments, they will have to comply with laws and regulations if they are not to become the VW of Silicon Valley.

Thus far we do not understand very well how to design systems that allow legitimate law enforcement access while also keeping data secure against illiegitimate access and abuse or excessive use of legitimate means. Perhaps in the end we will have to conclude that too much security would have to be sacrificed for guaranteed law enforcement access, as security experts warn almost in unison, or that a smartphone is too personal a mind extension for anyone to access it without its user’s permission. But this debate we must have: What should the FBI be allowed to access, what would be the design implications of guaranteed access requirements, and which side effects would we need to consider?

For all we know, security experts have a point warning about weakening what does already break more often than not. To expectat that companies could stand above the law because security, however, is just silly.

PS, remember Clarke’s first law: “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”

PPS: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Encryption


Crypto Wars 2.0: Let the Trolling Commence (and don’t trust your phone)

That was a nice bit of trolling. A rough timeline: (1) Apple and later, Google announce modest improvements to a security building block of their respective mobile device platforms, device encryption. (2) Government officials in the US publicly complain how this would obstruct law enforcement and request means to access encrypted device data. (3) The usual suspects are all up in arms and reiterate their arguments why crypto backdoors are a bad idea.

What is wrong with this debate, apart from it being a rerun? First, encryption is not as secure as claimed. Second, encryption is not as important as assumed.

Device encryption is just one small security building block. It protects data stored on the device against access without the encryption key if the adversary encounters the device in the turned-off state. Attacks against encryption typically go for the keys. As we were just reminded, police can compel suspects to hand over their fingerprints and unlock a device. Some countries have key disclosure laws.

Against running devices there are further attack options. If any key material is held in RAM, it can be extracted, at least in principle, with a cold boot attack. Whether Apple’s Secure Enclave design does anything to protect against such attacks remains unclear. As we’ve learned with Microsoft’s encryption scheme, Bitlocker, even hardware-supported encryption can leave a number of loopholes (Trust 2009 paper).

Encryption has its limitations. It protects data subject to several conditions. In particular, the adversary must be unable to obtain the key or subvert the execution environment. While plug-and-play forensics would be more convenient for law enforcement, there are ways around device encryption.

Mobile platforms extend beyond the individual device. Not only do devices communicate liberally with other devices and with Internet services, they also depend on the platform operator. Apple and Google run appstores and supply software updates. Whatever the software of a device can or cannot do may change at any time.

Encryption protects files against access bypassing the operating system, not against access from within. Protection against rogue users or applications is a matter of authentication and access control — software making decisions, software that can be modified. While this channel entails some tampering-with-evidence problems for law enforcement, it seems technically quite feasible to use it.

Encrypted equals secure only from a microscopic perspective. I have advocated before to pay more attention to systemic and macroscopic aspects, and the crypto wars 2.0 debate illustrates nicely how a too narrow focus on a single security mechanism skews our debate. Encryption matters, but not as much as we allow them to make us believe it would.