Cybersecurity & Tech Surveillance & Privacy

Encryption as Living Will: Think Before You Drink the Kool-Aid

Benjamin Wittes
Tuesday, April 26, 2016, 9:07 AM

A grieving father in Italy has written to Apple’s chief executive, Tim Cook, to beg him to unblock his dead son’s iPhone so he can retrieve the photographs stored on it.

Dama Fabbretti with his father, Leonardo Fabbretti

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A grieving father in Italy has written to Apple’s chief executive, Tim Cook, to beg him to unblock his dead son’s iPhone so he can retrieve the photographs stored on it.

If the US tech giant fails, he said he would turn to the Israeli mobile forensics firm that reportedly helped the FBI crack the iPhone used by gunman Syed Farook in the San Bernardino attack in December.

“Don’t deny me the memories of my son,” architect Leonardo Fabbretti wrote.

Fabbretti’s son, Dama, who was adopted from Ethiopia in 2007, was diagnosed with bone cancer in 2013 after a skiing accident and died in September aged 13 after a series of operations and chemotherapy sessions failed to cure him.

“I cannot give up. Having lost my Dama, I will fight to have the last two months of photos, thoughts and words which are held hostage in his phone,” he said in the letter, sent on 21 March.

“I think what’s happened should make you think about the privacy policy adopted by your company. Although I share your philosophy in general, I think Apple should offer solutions for exceptional cases like mine.”

Fabbretti said he had given his son an iPhone 6 nearly nine months before his death, which he used all the time. “He wanted me to have access, he added my fingerprint ID,” he told AFP. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t work if the phone is turned off and on again.”

Agence France Presse

The travails of people like Leonardo Fabbretti don’t seem to count for much in the encryption wars. Fabbretti, like the FBI, ultimately had to turn to a third party to hack his son’s iPhone—a company called Cellebrite—and recent reports suggest that the company may be able to get into the phone.

Be that as it may, the case, and others like it, give the lie to the idea that the encryption debate stacks law enforcement and intelligence interests, on the one hand, against personal privacy and security interests, on the other. FBI Director Jim Comey has often talked about the case of Brittney Mills, the 29-year-old pregnant Baton Rouge woman who was murdered by an unknown killer—leaving only an impenetrable iPhone.
As NPR summarizes:

Barbara Mills [the victim’s mother] saw Apple CEO Tim Cook on TV the other day, talking about the rights of consumers. To privacy activists, he's a hero. To her, he's not.

"You still trying to protect consumers, but what about the victims who used your product?" she says. "They were faithful, too. They paid their bills."

According to family members, Brittney Mills kept a diary on her phone, in some app, which could be very useful to investigators. They haven't been able to name a single suspect yet.

Sitting at the conference table in his office, East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore explains just how thin the murder scene was: "The daughter heard someone knock on the door and heard her mom speak to somebody, who she was not able to identify. After the shots rang out is when the daughter ran for safety."

Moore says the little girl ran into the bathroom and locked the door.

Brittney Mills lived on the ground floor of a small apartment complex in a nice part of town. None of the apartments — not No. 3, where she lived, or Nos. 1 or 2, had any sign of a forced entry.

"The critical thing is she opens the door," Moore explains.

And it looks like the shooter didn't enter the apartment, didn't rummage inside. "No gun left, no gun found. We really are desperate to try to get into the phone, just to see if there's anything else there," he says.

Like fingerprints, like DNA evidence, phone data figure prominently into criminal cases.

Investigators were able to get AT&T, the mobile carrier, to provide a call log — every number that called or texted Brittney, or that she contacted — but not what was said inside a text.

Apple turned over data stored on iCloud — like, 15,000 pages worth of data, according to prosecutors. But the account stopped backing up months before the murder, and that could be for any number of reasons, so the data ended up being outdated.

Back in February, I had a brief but interesting Twitter exchange with Jacob Appelbaum of Wikileaks fame about this case. Appelbaum and I were talking past one another about the history of industry cooperation with FBI surveillance requests, when he said the following:

Benjamin Wittes is editor in chief of Lawfare and a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of several books.

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