Apple said to be working on unhackable iPhone

Stronger encryption might be aimed at heading off the next battle with the US government over gaining access to iPhones.

Steven Musil
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Steven Musil is the night news editor at CNET News. He's been hooked on tech since learning BASIC in the late '70s. When not cleaning up after his daughter and son, Steven can be found pedaling around the San Francisco Bay Area. Before joining CNET in 2000, Steven spent 10 years at various Bay Area newspapers.
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3 min read

Apple engineers are said to be working on beefier security measures for the iPhone.


Apple's battle with the FBI is nowhere near an end, but the iPhone maker appears to be girding for its next fight over encryption.

Apple engineers are working on new security measures that would prevent an iPhone from being hacked using the methods at the heart of the company's fight with the US government, The New York Times reported Wednesday. It wasn't immediately apparent when such new measures might be made available to consumers.

Representatives for the Cupertino, California-based tech giant didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

The development appears to be a salvo in the war of words between the FBI and Apple, which has declined to modify its iOS software so the government can skirt security on an iPhone 5C tied to the December massacre in San Bernardino, California, which left 14 dead and 22 injured.

Earlier this month, a federal judge granted a request by the FBI to force Apple to disable the auto-erase function that kicks in when too many erroneous lock screen passcodes are entered into the phone. The FBI hopes the phone's contents will reveal more about the terrorists' activities leading up to the attack. But Apple and CEO Tim Cook, which had been helping with the investigation, say the government's request goes too far and would essentially create a backdoor or master key to millions of iPhones.

In a new twist, the Financial Times reported Thursday that Apple is working on ways to encrypt data stored via its iCloud service, which could further frustrate law enforcement agencies in investigations.

Such efforts to develop new security measures are likely to turn up the heat on the simmering tensions between Washington and Silicon Valley over encryption -- the technology that scrambles information to prevent unauthorized readers from seeing it. Tech companies have become increasingly diligent about including encryption in products and services in the wake of revelations about US government surveillance programs from documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

Encryption is used to protect everything from e-commerce transactions to the activities of political dissidents. But law enforcement officials complain that encryption also shields the communications of terrorists and criminals.

The deadly attacks in Paris late last year have led to debate about whether the technology industry has a duty to help the government view encrypted conversations in the name of stopping terrorism. Tech companies counter that it's impossible to let government agencies break encryption without letting criminals do the same.

The FBI says that its request is limited to the one iPhone in question. FBI Director James Comey wrote in a blog post Sunday, "We don't want to break anyone's encryption or set a master key loose on the land."

Apple has until Friday to respond to the court order, and a hearing is set for March 22. Apple executives say they're willing to take the case all the way to the US Supreme Court, if necessary.

"We know that doing this could expose people to incredible vulnerabilities. This would be bad for America," Cook said in an interview on the ABC News program "World News Tonight with David Muir," that airs tonight. "Some things are hard and some things are right. And some things are both. This is one of those things."

Apple earlier this week said it wants Congress to form a commission to look into the larger clash over technology and security to "discuss the implications for law enforcement, national security, privacy and personal freedoms." Two congressmen held a forum Wednesday to discuss a bill they plan to introduce next week that would create such a commission.

Update Feb. 25 at 11:19 a.m. PT: Added information on a report about Apple's iCloud encrytion plans.