Can ‘Han Solo’ Hack the San Bernardino Phone?

The battle between free data access and personal security, which has been raging quietly in the background for years, grabbed headlines this week, around the iPhone belonging to San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizwan Farook.

Investigators have the phone, but they have not been able to access internal data. Each iPhone contains sophisticated encryption technology specifically for privacy protection. The FBI, claiming that it has not been able to access data on the phone due to this encryption, asked for Apple’s help unlocking the phone. Information on the phone could help investigators learn more about the shooters and their contacts, the FBI says.

Apple CEO Tim Cook has held firm in his insistence that maintaining the privacy of Apple’s customers must be his top priority. He therefore refused to help the government. In a statement sent to customers, Apple said: “The United States government has demanded that Apple take an unprecedented step which threatens the security of our customers. We oppose this order, which has implications far beyond the legal case at hand.”

The company goes on to say that it will do everything it can to help with the investigation, short of building a “backdoor” into the phone.

“When the FBI has requested data that’s in our possession, we have provided it. Apple complies with valid subpoenas and search warrants, as we have in the San Bernardino case. We have also made Apple engineers available to advise the FBI, and we’ve offered our best ideas on a number of investigative options at their disposal,” Apple said in its statement.

“We have great respect for the professionals at the FBI, and we believe their intentions are good. Up to this point, we have done everything that is both within our power and within the law to help them. But now the U.S. government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create. They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone.”

Doing so, argues the company, would ultimately do more harm than good, exposing millions of iPhone users to the prying eyes of hackers and thieves. It would also, says the statement, set a “dangerous precedent.”

This is, to be sure, a gnarly subject, and while some feel that Apple should cooperate more fully — especially given the possibility that the shooters could have been part of a larger network — others feel that privacy should be paramount.

According to a recent survey by Pew Research, 47 percent of iPhone owners say that Apple should unlock the phone, while 43 percent feel it shouldn’t.

It’s a small majority, which gets larger when you move away from iPhone users.

Could there be a third option to break this apparent deadlock?

Enter John McAfee, swaggering in like the Han Solo of the cyber world: the renegade, the outlaw, who can get the job done even if it means bending a few of the rules. McAfee steps boldly up to the plate in an editorial on Business Insider, to make the following claim:

“With all due respect to Tim Cook and Apple, I work with a team of the best hackers on the planet. These hackers attend Defcon in Las Vegas, and they are legends in their local hacking groups, such as HackMiami. They are all prodigies, with talents that defy normal human comprehension. About 75 percent are social engineers. The remainder are hardcore coders. I would eat my shoe on the Neil Cavuto show if we could not break the encryption on the San Bernardino phone. This is a pure and simple fact.”

Who is this team of elite crackerjacks, and why are they not already on the job? To hear McAfee describe them, they are about as out-of-the-mainstream as anything you’re likely to find this side of Mos Eisley cantina.

“And why do the best hackers on the planet not work for the FBI? Because the FBI will not hire anyone with a 24-inch purple mohawk, 10-gauge ear piercings, and a tattooed face who demands to smoke weed while working and won’t work for less than a half-million dollars a year. But you bet your ass that the Chinese and Russians are hiring similar people with similar demands and have been for many years. It’s why we are decades behind in the cyber race.”

No word yet on whether this crack team has been given a shot at this, but it sounds to me like it might just be the best option the FBI has if it wants to gain access to the encrypted data.

Image credit: Flickr/George Panos