Apple vs. FBI Was a Nasty Piece of Work

I blame Denis McDonough.

Strong encryption is here to stay, Apple CEO Tim Cook told President Obama’s top national security officials last January at a meeting in San Jose. The FBI, the DOJ, and the NSA would have to find other ways to do their job.

“With all due respect,” Cook told the Washington brass in attendance, including FBI director James Comey and Attorney General Loretta Lynch, “I think there has been a lack of leadership in the White House on this.”

According to the New York Times, Denis McDonough, the President’s chief of staff, took exception and said so.

“Law enforcement officials described him as stung by what they called Mr. Cook’s ‘rant,’ although tech executives in the room insisted that Apple’s chief executive was respectful.

“Soon after, Mr. McDonough brought the meeting to an end. “Put a pin in it,” participants recalled that he said, making it clear that the conversation would continue.”

One month later, the U.S. government gave Cook its answer: It blindsided him with a court order. Only Apple, the DOJ told a compliant federal judge, could disable the security features preventing the FBI from hacking into one of the San Bernardino shooters’ iPhone.

That, we learned Monday, was not true.

What began as a cynical attempt to exploit the deaths of 14 Americans to win in the courts what they couldn’t get from Congress ended with the FBI acquiring an exploit from a “third party”—reportedly from Cellebrite, from one of the growing cadre of professional hackers who do this kind of thing for money. (Big money. Last year, a far less sophisticated iOS 9 jailbreak fetched $1 million.)

In the process, the DOJ and the FBI did their best to drag Apple through the mud, portraying it as a company that protects terrorists to advance its public brand marketing strategy.

It was a nasty piece of work.

I can’t blame the assistant attorney generals whose claims to the Court turned out to be false. They were just following orders. (Not very competently, I might add, having read both the DOJ’s filings and the replies in which Apple’s legal team ripped them to shreds.)

Lynch and Comey, the officials who would have given those orders, were also just doing their job, which is to be cops. And they came across in the congressional testimony I heard as more clueless than malevolent. (We haven’t heard a peep from the NSA, but picking public fights is not in their MO.)

The buck, in theory, stops with President Obama. But after listening to his delicately balanced analysis at SXSW, I have a hard time seeing him going after one of his strongest—and richest—supporters in Silicon Valley with brass knuckles.

Which is why I blame Denis McDonough, Obama’s no-nonsense chief of staff. He’s the official whose nose was out of joint, the one stung by Cook’s “rant.”

McDonough said he’d put a pin it it. One month later, Apple got sandbagged.


  1. Peter Kropf said:
    I believe he’s out to get security-for-everyone destroyed. He now has the Feinstein bill in hand which empowers judges to decide the issue of compelling decryption ‘as needed’.

    I don’t think Feinstein will get much support from tech in the next election. How can she support the elimination of strong encryption? Damn the Constitution, Full Speed Ahead.

    March 23, 2016
    • David Emery said:
      The ‘code is speech’ precedents argue strongly against the Constitutionality of the Feinstein bill, at least to the extent it would mandate specific features implemented in software.

      March 23, 2016
  2. Carolyn Sills said:
    There are many more Cellebrites where it came from and the FBI knows it. Other “Cellebrites” have already offered to help (I’m the broken record repeating my past posts). The FBI was never out of options, they arrest hackers for crying out loud. The fact that they didn’t enlist any hackers for hire is because their ultimate goal was govtOS and setting a precedent. They made themselves out to be the good guy and Apple the bad guy, but it backfired.

    I have a very different opinion of Obama’s SXSW speech — it was a charade at best. The debate over national security vs. personal privacy has started long ago, while the current uproar is over HIS government demanding the encryption key from Apple by forcing Apple to create a new operating system for HIS law and enforcement agencies. The DAs may be clueless but Obama knows full well what his people are up to and avoid the subject altogether. After his PR speech, ten day s later all of a sudden in came Cellebrite — when that option was available to the FBI since day one. The whole thing is a sham.

    March 25, 2016

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