One way to keep iPhones secure: Let Apple look inside, not the FBI


Former Apple CEO John Sculley has an interesting idea about how Apple might approach the FBI's request.
Photo: Web Summit/Flickr CC

There are plenty of opposing views about how Apple should handle the FBI’s demand to create a backdoor to unlock a dead terrorist’s iPhone.

One idea we haven’t heard before, however, is a concept put forward by former Apple CEO John Sculley: Cupertino could help provide the desired information, but Apple (not the government) could be in charge of reading the messages.

In an in-depth interview with Cult of Mac, the rest of which will be published tomorrow, Sculley proposes the idea, which he calls one of the most interesting ways he’s heard of to deal with the issue.

“If we really need to find out information about an individual suspect, I would rather that Apple be the one that can look inside and give feedback about what they’ve found under a proper court order,” Sculley said.

Tim Cook’s high-stakes vow that Apple will not build an iPhone backdoor for the FBI to access the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone has ignited a firestorm in the tech world. Most security experts and privacy advocates back Cupertino, but others (like Donald Trump) are slamming Apple for its pro-privacy stance.

Sculley is quick to point out that he’s not an expert on security. But, like many others, he’s got concerns about giving the government the type of backdoor access it’s requesting.

“I think the precedent should not be that Apple gives the government all of its information, but rather that Apple is the one in control if a particular circumstance arises,” he said.

The terrorism angle might make it seem like Apple is aiding and abetting bad guys, but the real issue is the long-term impact of circumventing the iPhone’s powerful encryption measures, Sculley said.

“We’re in an era where terrorism is a threat to the future of civilization,” he said. “I’m sensitive to the fact that we want to know as much as we can about people who are trying to destroy us. But governments are imperfect. Giving them a backdoor to look at everyone’s private information is pretty high-risk. In all likelihood, it will at some point be abused and it opens Pandora’s box.”

You can check out the rest of our exclusive interview with Sculley tomorrow, in which he discusses his new book, Moonshot!, his thoughts on the Apple Watch, how he wishes he had handled Steve Jobs’ departure at Apple differently, the accuracy of Aaron Sorkin’s Steve Jobs movie, and much more.

In the meantime, do you agree with Sculley’s thesis that Apple is more worthy of being trusted with personal information than the U.S. government? Is there any way that the decision made in this particular case doesn’t become a precedent-setter that opens up other users for having their personal data read? Leave your comments below.

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  • aardman

    Sculley has totally missed the point. And very kind of Mr. Dormehl not to point that out.

  • lee scott

    Yeah, because Apple knows so much about what could be a terrorist tie or crime info. Talk about hubris. Holy fugg.

    • digitaldumdum

      You miss the point altogether. Why post when you don’t understand the issue? Just bored?

      • lee scott

        Keep trying, D-Dum.

  • Steve Harvey

    This is what I said hours ago! This is a perfect solution!

    • aardman

      You totally missed announcing the rightful winner, now you’ve totally missed the point. Time to ‘take responsibility’ again, Steve. :-)

  • Alphaman64

    Bollocks. Apple should not be required to create the back door that will expose and compromise their crypto keys, even if they keep the tool in-house. Once created, they will need to put a revolving door on the spaceship campus for all the law enforcement agencies (not just US ones) that will be coming with writ in hand, pleading that the contents of Joe Blow’s iOS device be read for them.
    Then, we also get to await the day when some Apple employee decides that the $50M bounty for a flash drive containing the back door code plus key is sufficient remuneration, and outweighs the ethical dilemma of exposing the bank accounts of a billion users…

  • Roscoe Kidder

    It took some hack former CEO of Apple to come up with that solution. Idiot.

  • Tony Adams

    I didn’t get past “terrorism is a threat to the future of civilization.”

  • MWinNYC

    I find it absolutely mindboggling that neither the FBI nor the CIA have the intelligence to do this without Apple. US Intelligence is TRULY weak! John McAfee claims that he could do it himself. And, I’m sure there are others out there that that could do it, as well, if given the proper incentives, of course.

    • tjwolf

      Yes – because someone claiming they can do something, always means they can. Especially crazed, potheads like McAfee.

      • MWinNYC

        If there’s a will, there’s a way! NOTHING on the Earth is infallible. And, if the smartest computer gurus are working for Apple, we’re in big trouble!

  • JuanGuapo

    Why do we care what this failed executive has to say?

  • DP

    FALSE! This is still problematic. If FBI asks Apple to unlock (even if ONLY Apple ‘sees’ what is happening) then when other powers ask Apple to do so, they will have no grounds to refuse. Other governments, trying to squelch what we would call free speech, employers snooping on employees, etc.

  • JuanGuapo

    Translation: “If I were running Apple…” –Yes, thankfully you’re not.

  • johnnygoodface

    What a mor…. Has he got an IQ of 60 or what? Apple CAN’T EVEN access the info even if they wanted to! Only the user has the key, and only him (her)

    • digitaldumdum

      I agree totally with Tim Cook that no software tool should be created to circumvent Apple devices. That said, the FBI is •not• asking Apple to provide software to decrypt the iPhone. They are asking for a tool to disable the feature that would wipe the phone after ten attempts to try a password. Rest assured the FBI have been steadily attempting to get in the phone, but are slowed by fear they themselves will destroy the data.

      Interestingly, a lot of people, including presidential candidates, squawk about how the •government• should have done more to prevent the San Bernardino killings, as if that were even remotely possible. Yet the FBI—a principal government security agency, no less—feels it needs the contents of an iPhone to keep us safe from future attacks. Ridiculous.

  • DirtyOldTown

    How are we at the point where for-profit corporations are considered more trustworthy than agencies of a democratically elected government?

    • aardman

      Ever since GW Bush’s Iraq War to destroy imaginary WMD and the Patriot Act, both of which taught the country that the government cannot be trusted.

      • DirtyOldTown

        So we’re just totally OK with blocking law enforcement with legally obtained warrants from accessing evidence to aid in criminal prosecutions or protect public safety so long as Apple can keep its brand pure and save its market share? (All the while using tax loopholes to pay less tax and shipping jobs to countries with lax labour laws.)

      • aardman

        No. It’s bigger than that. It’s about balance between the needs of law enforcement and the right to privacy and transactional security. How critical is it to get access to everyone’s phones if they want to, and that’s what the FBI is really asking, to prevent (okay I will say it but please don’t let the word shut down your ability to think critically) terrorism? Is it worth putting everyone’s privacy and transactional security (i.e. identity theft) at risk? Keep in mind that if smartphone privacy is breached, bad actors can easily turn to commercially available alternative encryption technologies, so in the end we exposed everyone to hackers for nothing. Keep in mind that if US tech companies yield to the feds on this, they will be forced to yield to China, Russia, and a host of other oppressive governments. Keep in mind that no matter what the FBI tries to make you think, breaking smartphone encryption will not stop terrorism.

        Balance. That’s the key. What’s the benefit versus what do we give up? I say what we give up is a lot and the benefit is fleeting –it disappears as soon as the bad guys turn to alternative encryption methods.

      • DirtyOldTown

        Your home is subject to search by legal warrant. Your car is subject to search by legal warrant. Your phone should somehow remain inviolate? I don’t buy the argument that if the FBI gets its way evil hackers will suddenly steal all our information (there, I used the word hackers, don’t let it stop you from thinking critically). Because before 2014 when Apple dug its heels in on end-to-end encryption everyone’s phone was being hacked every damn day and twice at midnight. Apple has opened phones before so to suddenly be champions for privacy is disingenuous.

      • Peter Sichel

        It sounds like you need help connecting the dots. All encryption is based on keeping secrets. If those secrets are ever revealed, the encryption is broken for everyone including your bank account number and password. Do you really think we should risk that for every iPhone owner? How many employees do you think the NSA has planted at Apple to crack their security? We know from Snowden’s revelations this was done at other companies. If Apple builds a backdoor, there is a real risk the secret will be stolen or compromised.

        Weakening encryption is a bad idea. This is why the FBI is being blasted by so many security experts. They thought by choosing a high profile terrorist incident they could set a favorable precedence. In my view, that was a really dumb move and reveals a failure of leadership at the FBI.

      • DirtyOldTown

        The only thing missing from your response is a Benjamin Franklin quote.

        You have no idea what is on that phone. It’s entirely possible that there is important information regarding the attack on that phone.

        Apple’s claims that this will put every iPhone user at risk are wildly exaggerated. Prior to 2014, when Apple suddenly cared so deeply about your privacy (ostensibly out of the goodness of its little corporate heart), millions of people accessed their banks on iPhones, and the sky didn’t fall.

        None of the hyperbole / conspiracy theories Snowden fanboys (and I include Cook in that category) are bloviating all over the internet justify Apple being allowed to profit from marketing a device that prevents law enforcement with an appropriate warrant from accessing that device when necessary.

      • Peter Sichel

        Apple, Google, and other high tech companies started caring more deeply about security when they learned the NSA was monitoring almost everything. A federal court ruled the NSA’s activities unconstitutional. The director of intelligence pergured himself before Congress claiming no such programs existed. Security experts at Google now considers the US Government an “advanced persistent threat”.

        The world has changed since “prior to 2014”. Smartphones have become far more popular and are used for more private transactions including Apple Pay for example. Apple extended the security envelope to include many more of the iPhones features. Breaking that security envelope would place millions of people at risk.

        As for conspiracy theories, to believe there is something so valuable on this one phone that law enforcement hasn’t learned already ranks with the best of them.

      • DirtyOldTown

        This is a larger discussion than about what may or may not be on Farook’s phone. It’s perfectly reasonable to think there may be something of value to the investigation on the phone, especially considering he turned off his cloud back-up weeks before the attack. That’s probable cause. It also includes other phones that are currently in police evidence rooms that cannot be accessed.

        Apple and Google and other high tech companies participated in the NSA’s surveillance program, so they haven’t demonstrated any special principle against it government surveillance. They’re just embarrassed after the fact – hence the PR offensive. (OMG this piece of software we can build, keep and erase at our facilities will unlock all your phones, everywhere! The G-Men will browse all your selfies! No.)

        The request is for a key that will only work on this phone, identified by it’s specific number. Apple can keep and destroy the software. If you want to argue that Apple can’t be trusted to keep it’s own software safe, then I wonder why you trust them with all the personal information you do.

        Yes, they’re right that if they do this on this phone they’ll be asked to do it again. And that’s right and proper. We’re talking about law enforcement here, not mass surveillance. The FBI has a lawful warrant to access that phone and Apple is obstructing it.

        It blows my mind that people want corporations to decided whether or not the FBI or state and local law officials should be allowed to do their job. Do we elect Apple? No.

      • Peter Sichel

        The FBI now has access to more information about people than at any time in history. While your home and car may be subject to legal search, your mind is not. Smartphones are designed to be an extension of the users mind. Why are you so afraid of the idea that people can have secrets?

        The ability to meet and discuss dissenting views in private is essential to democracy. There can be no freedom of speech without it.

        Apple is simply serving its customers. Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. There is no consent to force companies to hack their own products. The government claims an 18th century act gives them the power to compel companies to act against the legal interests of themselves and their customers. If they want the right to do this, get Congress to pass a law. The problem is they have tried before and failed each time.

      • DirtyOldTown

        Smart phones are devices, not an extension of your body. As devices, as property, they should be subject to the same rules as all your other property.

        This is a case of law enforcement, with a lawful warrant, based on probable cause, not surveillance of dissenting opinion. Again, this is the investigation of a crime, not political surveillance. It’s an important distinction.

        Yes, the people of the United States have given the FBI power to investigate criminal activity and wrongdoing. Apple, a company, not a person with a vote, is obstructing them in that process. Companies are subject to operate under the laws the nations they do business in.

        I agree this is an issue Congress will have to address. I think they have a better case than they’ve ever had before to do so.

      • Peter Sichel

        In this case, the FBI is asking Apple to produce and hand over a tool that will allow it to bypass the built-in security of the phone. It has everything to do with providing a backdoor to access encrypted information, and very little to do with the information actually on this individual phone.

        If they just wanted the information on this phone, they could have asked Apple for that, but they didn’t.

        Google cooperated with the NSAs Prism program to the extend they believed it was legal. When they learned the NSA had bypassed their cooperation to tap into their servers directly, they were furious. It was at this point Google elevated the US Government to an “advanced persistent threat”.

        The facts are the US government has repeatedly and illegally abused its power. That is not in dispute. Corporations on the other hand may hold a lot of information about individuals, but they don’t have the power to arrest or prosecute people for political dissent. That’s an important distinction.

      • DirtyOldTown

        No, Apple can retain the tool. It’s not backdoor access, it’s a bypass patch programmed for one particular phone, identified by a unique number. Cook has done a wonderful job obfuscating the issue for people who can’t bother to read the DoJ order themselves.

        Corporations with your health information (i.e. health insurance companies) may not be able to arrest you, but they can certainly make life or death decisions about you based on data you provide.

        The fact is, criminals should not have access to warrant-proof data storage. Child pornographers are 100 per cent with Tim Cook on this one too.

  • digitaldumdum

    “One way to keep iPhones secure: Let Apple look inside, not the FBI”

    As he was, and still is on so many Apple-related issues, Scully is clueless. The issue is not whether the FBI, Apple, or a kid on a couch in a basement should backdoor an iPhone, but rather whether it should be done at all. If Apple were to agree, which we know it won’t, the company would likely have little chance of keeping the software—the secret—safe from being “borrowed.”

  • David Kaplan 

    This solution is terrible, the accessibility of the information is the issue. It doesn’t matter if Apple or the government sees it. Sculley missed the point.

  • Louie Campagna

    The second any data is retrieved, the precedent is then set. It doesn’t matter who is in “control” of the data. If the backdoor to iOS is created, all privacy and security goes out the window.

  • Doug Ford

    Give the govt an inch, and they go and create the Patriot Act! No more! They can’t control themselves.

  • Robyn Simpson

    No…Apple should NOT be required to open a back door! They should however, be required to give evidence in court by revealing what the court needs to know about a particular person. If Apple were to ‘open the back door’ we will find ourselves in lots of trouble down the track as Governments ARE imperfect. We all have a right to privacy but if an individual is deemed a criminal, then yes, information should be revealed BUT ONLY BY APPLE!

    • DirtyOldTown

      Because Apple is perfect? And corporations always have benign intentions?

  • Sandym

    This shouldn’t be put on Apple’s lap, there are other ways to gain access to the iPhone in question but our government is trying to set a precedent with their hidden agenda. This lying and pretending isn’t fair to us as citizens and they are insulting our intelligence. The iPhone was an employer issued phone so most likely has absolutely nothing related to the terrorist activities that can be extracted from it. Terrorists are trained to hide and cover any trails, I believe that’s pretty common knowledge?

  • Jimmy

    It is interesting that After Steve Jobs has passed, Sculley popped up to praise Him and now comments on Apple as if he were not the worst CEO, Apples has ever seen.