Apple ditched plans for secure iCloud backups after FBI concern

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Apple ditched plans for secure iCloud backups after FBI concern
Apple planned new feature two years ago.
Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac

Apple ditched plans to let users fully encrypt backups of their devices using iCloud, a new report by Reuters claims. Apple reportedly made the decision after the FBI complained that this would make it harder to carry out future investigations.

The report mentions no names. But the news outlet reportedly spoke with “six sources familiar with the matter.”

Apple was reportedly working on the feature two years ago, codenamed Plesio and KeyDrop. This would have been just after Apple’s privacy standoff with the FBI regarding whether or not it would agree to unlock an iPhone as part of a shooting investigation.

Apple is currently involved in another encryption-centered case regarding a Saudi Air Force officer who shot dead three Americans at a Pensacola, Florida naval base in late 2019. Earlier this month, US Attorney General William Barr accused Apple of not cooperating in the investigation to unlock two iPhones. Apple denied the allegations, saying that it is cooperating.

Reuters claims that, had Apple instituted its proposed iCloud encryption system, it would no longer have had a key able to unlock the encrypted iCloud data. As a result, it would not have been “able to turn material over to authorities in a readable form even under court order.” Currently, law enforcement can request data from iCloud backups. Apple periodically reveals how many of these requests it receives from governments. Apple can hand over decrypted iCloud data if subpoenaed. Had Apple instituted its new approach, this would no longer have been possible.

For that reason, representatives of the FBI objected to Apple’s plan. After talks with the FBI, Apple decided to drop the planned feature.

Apple’s iCloud backup encryption: “Legal killed it”

One ex-Apple employee was reportedly that, “Legal killed it, for reasons you can imagine.” “They decided they weren’t going to poke the bear anymore,” he said, referring to the FBI.

Neither the FBI or Apple gave an official comment to Reuters on the story.

The question of strong encryption is a divisive one. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and WhatsApp founder Jan Koum are among the big names who have sided with Apple in the past. However, Bill Gates and Larry Ellison came down on the other side of the issue.

Tim Cook previously explained why Apple keeps an encryption key to iCloud backups. “Our users have a key and we have one. We do this because some users lose or forget their key and then expect help from us to get their data back,” Cook told Der Spiegel an an interview translated from German.

Source: Reuters