Is FBI's claim against Apple a bluff? Edward Snowden raises doubts

The former NSA contractor joined the ACLU in suggesting that the US government already knows how to access the San Bernardino shooter's iPhone.

The Guardian/AP/File
Edward Snowden in Hong Kong in 2014. The former NSA contractor turned whistleblower suggested on Tuesday that the US government already has the capability to access encrypted data held in the San Bernardino shooter's iPhone, despite claims made in court.

Another voice is wading into the controversy over Apple, Inc.’s refusal to unlock the iPhone that was used by one of the terrorists responsible for the December shooting in San Bernardino, Calif.: surveillance whistleblower Edward Snowden.

On Tuesday, the former National Security Agency contractor called into question the government's claim that it is unable to access data locked in the phone without Apple's assistance.

Mr. Snowden, a technology professional who unlawfully released information on mass NSA surveillance programs, was forced to flee the United States in the wake of his whistleblowing to avoid facing charges brought against him by the US Department of Justice in June, 2013.

Snowden anonymously communicated with and provided classified documents to journalists before his identity was revealed when reports about the information he provided were published, along with interviews identifying him. Following the Justice Department’s move to prosecute him, Snowden flew to Moscow where he was granted asylum and has stayed ever since.

Alternatively labeled as a patriot and a traitor, Snowden’s actions divided public opinion even as he remains involved in public technology and security discourse. Speaking via video feed from Russia at a Common Cause Blueprint for a Great Democracy conference Tuesday, Snowden dismissed the Federal Bureau of Investigation's claim made in court that Apple has the “exclusive technical means of getting into this phone.”

“Respectfully, that’s horse****,” he said, after discussing the implications of further allowing government access to supposedly private communications.

Via his Twitter account Tuesday, Snowden also shared an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) report which states that the FBI’s claim that Apple must unlock the mobile device itself is fraudulent, suggesting the agency hopes to “weaken the ecosystem” of smartphone security in a “power grab.”

“They're asking the public to grant them significant new powers that could put all of our communications infrastructure at risk, and to trust them to not misuse these powers,” according to ACLU technology fellow Daniel Kahn Gillmor.

“[T]hey're deliberately misleading the public (and the judiciary) to try to gain these powers,” Mr. Gillmor wrote.

Snowden and the ACLU’s stance on whether Apple should unlock the iPhone come after other prominent technology and cybersecurity figures have voiced their opinions. At the 2016 RSA Conference recently held in San Francisco, the Apple debate was the “talk of the town.” Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates weighed in on the issue on Reddit, saying “there needs to be a discussion about when the government should be able to gather information,” adding that “the government needs to talk openly about safeguards.”

“For tech companies there needs to be some consistency including how governments work with each other. The sooner we modernize the laws the better,” Gates added.

And Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak expressed his support for Apple on Conan earlier this week, saying “I side with Apple on this one,” adding that the FBI “picked a lame case,” and that it is unlikely the phone in question even contains relevant information.

“The global technological consensus is against the FBI,” Snowden wrote on Twitter.

Public opinion on the issue is still divided, though. Recent polls released through Reuters/Ipsos and the Pew Research Center show differing accounts of Americans’ thoughts on the issue. One showed that only 38 percent of survey responses agreed with Apple’s decision, while the other suggested more than 46 percent thought the tech company was in the right. The first presented a 51 percent grouping of those agreeing with the FBI, the other with 35 percent aligned with the Bureau.

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