CIA has attempted to hack Apple firmware unrelentingly since iPhone’s release

Ray Walsh

Ray Walsh

March 12, 2015

A long standing argument between myself and a friend has this week been given extra food for thought, and this new information may well have swayed the whole matter his way.  For around four years he and I have been debating whether it is really worth the extra money that one spends to use iPhones and iPads, as opposed to tablets and smartphones on the Android platform, and now his opinion may have been vindicated.

New revelations gleaned from the Snowden leaks, and released by the Intercept this week, show that since the iPhone’s inception in 2007 the CIA has continuously been attempting to compromise Apple’s firmware, and has been holding an annual meeting (called the Jamboree) to discuss its efforts to crack the essential security keys used to encrypt data in Apple’s products – in order that the intelligence agency may implant malware and spy on Apple’s users . The good news is that the documents suggest that the CIA has been largely unsuccessful, seemingly bringing a new wave of confidence to the Apple platform and its closed source encryption.

Often Apple’s built-in encryption comes under fire from security experts for the reason that closed source code can not be checked for backdoors, and is therefore impossible to verify and trust.  Now it would seem that Apple’s encryption may be getting a little bit of a ‘high five’ because its contentious firmware may have in fact have been offering Apple users a greater level of security than previously perceived – by stopping intelligence agencies from being able to decrypt and ultimately penetrate their products.

Apple CEO Tim Cook has previously gone on the record with his pro-privacy beliefs saying that,

“Security and privacy are fundamental to the design of all our hardware, software, and services,”

It is also true that Apple is part of a coalition called Reform Government Surveillance that includes within its ranks Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter, and which calls on the US Government to put strong limits on the NSA’s (and other intelligence agencies’) power to spy.

The problem is that this new Snowden document stands in stark opposition to previous revelations from the same source, and according to those previous documents the NSA has had access to all of the iPhone’s data using a program called DROPOUTJEEP.  So either the NSA and the CIA do not share information, or this ‘Jamboree’ had little to do with gaining access to and implanting malware on iPhones.

One thing that we do know for sure is that Apple were one of the last companies to join the Prism program, only joining after Steve Jobs’ death. We do know, however, that they did join, and we know this because the government gave them and other technology companies no choice by forcing them to comply with the program using law 702. Rajesh De, the NSA’s general counsel, certainly makes it clear that Apple were indeed part of the NSA’s Prism project, and that they acted in full co-operation.

The truth is that the whole issue surrounding the spying scandal is confusing.  Apple, it would seem, did try to resist joining the program for some time, and since the Snowden revelations, no doubt for PR’s sake, has been pushing back hard against the government’s desire to have a backdoor into their products. The big question is, is it too late?

Since the release of the Edward Snowden documents, conspiracy theorists that had been crying wolf for well over a decade, have been proven right, and all those that ridiculed and disbelieved that communications were being gathered ‘en masse’ have had to go off with their tails between their legs. The unthinkable was true.

All of a sudden digital privacy is a much bigger issue than ever before – the knowledge that they have been and are probably being spied on now has given the public a new sense of urgency, and it is for this reason that VPN networks among other forms of protection are growing in popularity day after day.

In the end, the fact that Apple and other tech firms did cooperate with the NSA can not too easily be held against them, considering that the firms were forced to comply by law, and one can fully sympathize with those same companies wanting to reassure consumers of privacy in the future, giving rise to efforts such as the Reform Government Surveillance coalition.

As for this particular set of revelations from the Intercept? If the CIA could not penetrate Apple’s firmware for such a long time, and in the end the NSA had to have a backdoor built for them by Apple themselves, then it would certainly seem that Apple’s software was well designed, and did a good job of keeping the intelligence agencies out for some time. Considering, however, that the encryption on Android (open source) is also proven to be effective against NSA hacking, it would seem that the argument between me and my friend is still very much alive.

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