Tag Archives: Apple

I stand with Pear

I stand with the idealized version of a company who innovates and stands up for our privacy and civil liberties. On TV we don’t often see this company by name (unless they’re a sponsor) but we know who we’re talking about when we see a piece of fruit on a laptop. The Simpsons was cutting it pretty close with “Mapple.”

The real Apple, I’m not so sure about.

The Basics

These are very technical issues that I’m presenting in a colloquial way. But I think this situation is something that can be understood and thought about by anyone.

The FBI requested*  Apple’s assistance in unlocking the phone of one of the San Bernardino gunmen. Specifically they asked Apple to do the following:

  • Create a way for the FBI to guess the phone’s code by brute force (trying all possible codes) without having to type in the numbers or letters.
  • Disable any delay countermeasures that space out the time between guesses (i.e. Make it so the FBI doesn’t have to wait half an hour after five bad guesses).
  • Create a program that prevents the phone from erasing its contents after a set number of bad guesses.
  • Do all of these things without modifying the contents of the phone.

Apple CEO Tim Cook stated in a letter Apple’s opposition to the court order**. Their basic argument is the following:

  • A program to crack an encrypted iPhone does not currently exist. If they write one, there exists a possibility (however small), that the program will find its way into the wild and will be misused either by hackers, or even by unchecked government surveillance.
  • If you write a program to crack this one iPhone, you’ve written it to crack all iPhones. In Apple’s words “The government is asking us to hack our users.”
  • Complying with the order may set a dangerous precedent and allow for Government overreach.

Some Analysis

Here’s one thing Apple didn’t say: We CAN’T comply with the order.

If you’re technically inclined you should read this article from the Trail of Bits Blog. It does a good job of explaining encryption at all the various layers, what the government asked Apple to do, and how Apple could do it.

Basically there are two locks on a phone. The passcode which the FBI is trying to break, and the phone’s hardware key (stored in a couple of different places depending on the model of phone). You need both keys to decrypt the data, but you can get the hardware key if you get the passcode right. Trying to decrypt the data without these keys is basically impossible.

What Apple is saying is that they CAN write a program that will allow you to brute force guess the first key, which gives you the second key and access to the phone. The phone’s security CAN be bypassed. According to the Trail of Bits estimates it would take half an hour to retrieve a four-digit pin, a few hours to get a six-digit pin, and up to 5.5 years to guess a six-digit alphanumeric passcode. The FBI hasn’t mentioned which type of code they’re trying to crack on this particular phone.

Is this a bad thing?

Well generally, yes.

Apple’s taking a stand that they won’t write this program because to do so would expose their phones. But the fact that it’s possible for them to comply with the order suggests that someone else could write this program and expose iPhones in the same way. Apple didn’t give any estimates on how long it would take to engineer a program like this.

Basically, if Apple cared about privacy as much as they say they do, they’d make a phone they couldn’t crack even if someone asked nicely (though that sounds a lot easier than it is).

So why doesn’t the government write this program themselves if it’s so easy to write?

They need Apple’s digital signatures, and knowledge of the iOS operating system. A rogue program doesn’t just run on your phone. It needs to be verified, and Apple can write something the phone will recognize as authentic.

So it’s not so easy?

Well, the problem is this. Apple and the government are both very security conscious places. And they’ve both been hacked. That’s why Apple says they’re worried about bringing a program like this into the world. It could always get out. The problem is, so can digital signatures. And engineers can always be personally targeted. Many data breaches work at the human level, not the technological.

What do you think?

I think this is one of the worst possible cases for Apple to have to take a stand on. This was a terrible act of terror, the phone is owned by the shooter’s employer who has agreed to let the FBI try to crack it, and it’s possible the FBI could learn about other terrorists or even future attacks from the phone’s contents (though, then again, maybe not).

Tim Cook’s tone is alarmist and a bit strident. Even if you agree that privacy is important, you probably also think that law enforcement should have some ability to get information it needs.

But privacy really is important. Sure, we want to be able to crack the bad guy’s phones. But if we create tools to crack those phones, who’s to say that program won’t be used to crack the phones of people trying to do real good in countries with oppressive regimes.

Maybe what the FBI needs is the assistance of one Benedict Cumberbatch. He was able to guess the passcode of Irene Adler’s phone, thus removing any leverage she might have had over him. Her phone was literally “Sher-locked.” No, seriously. Check out Wikipedia if you think I’m lying.

I think Apple’s right to challenge the court order. These sorts of things shouldn’t be followed blindly without at least some public discussion of practical limits, and an understanding of the potential risks. But I don’t think either side has the clear moral high ground.

So I stand with Pear. They make a great uncrackable myPhone, even though the fruit is terrible.

PS. Thanks to Adam for his great thoughts on this issue and for starting a conversation that lead to a lot of good articles.


* I’m using a nice term, it was a court order actually.

** If you read the whole letter, Apple’s pretty clear about how horrible the San Bernardino shooting is, and how they’ve made every reasonable effort to assist law enforcement.

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Filed under Trube On Tech

USB-C – Sex will never be the same again

It’s an old joke to those of you who are fans of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, but the way USB cables used to work was this:

  1. Try to plug USB cable in
  2. Doesn’t work so flip over
  3. Try to plug it in
  4. Doesn’t work so flip over
  5. Plugs in

For those of you who chose geekier ways of giving the sex talk (if you’re gonna call the connector ends male and female this is bound to happen somewhere), using a USB cable analogy for men and women might lead to some confusion later in life.

But there’s a new USB standard that’s been floating around for a few months, and Mac’s latest laptop is the first to implement it, USB-C.

With USB-C the steps are:

  1. Plug it in

In typical Apple fashion this is the only port on their laptop and will only be compatible with older devices if you use an adapter (try having that talk with your kids).


Image Source: Apple Insider

Probably this will start cropping up as an option on other laptops later this year, but should you worry now about all the old USB drives you have lying around? (Hint: NO).

USB Type-A (the kind you’re probably most familiar with if you’ve ever used a flash drive) has been around for nearly two decades (my first computer that had it was purchased in 2003). This means the vast majority of computers you will ever encounter in the world will still use Type-A for a long time to come, and it will probably take years for Type-C to take over the marketplace to the point where you could reliably use those drives elsewhere. The new MacBook lists for a base price of $1200 so only your hipster friends with money will use these anyway.

You’re better off buying a good USB 3.0/3.1 drive which does have considerably better write speeds than 2.0 (though not the order of magnitude change in practical use that most people claim). 3.0 flash drives are better at running programs than a 2.0 flash drive (closer to what you’d get with a portable hard drive though still slower). And they’re only a couple of bucks more at places like MicroCenter (good USB 3.0 32GB for about $12).

And though I know there are some under the hood changes allowing for some potentially faster protocols in Type-C, for right now you’re really only saving the five seconds you’ve been spending trying to plug in a device the wrong way.

And foreplay’s the best part anyway 🙂

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The Battle of Burning The Page For $9.99

The eBook revolution is upon us. Have you chosen a side?

Burning the Page by Jason Merkoski is a chronicle of the early days of this war, namely the creation of the Kindle, and the eReaders to follow. If you can get past the first 5% where Merkoski takes credit for the first online eBook, and brags about how he was uniquely placed to be the first eBook evangelist, then you are presented not only with the history of a device, but a fundamental change in reading.

Even though he was an “eBook evangelist” for years, Merkoski is a lover of physical books. Each chapter centers on a piece of the history of the eBook through Merkoski’s five years at Amazon, as well as his predictions for the future of eBooks. But each chapter ends with a look back to some artifact of the past that will be lost, whether it’s found artifacts in books, the smell of musty pages and ink, or even just bookmarks. Merkoski describes emotionally the process required to scan in a physical book, which in nearly all cases is destructive to the original. Though he calls the eBook revolution a “bloodless” revolution, it’s clear that he is not ambivalent to the blood spilled in torn spines and burned pages.

But Merkoski loves his technology as well, though ironically he seems to think of the Kindle as a cold soulless device. A number of his predictions center around ways to make eReaders more like physical books, whether it’s physical\digital pages to turn, or covers that are shown on a screen in the front. Still he loves a good device unboxing:

“Unboxing is a new voyeuristic phenomenon that’s erotic and technical at the same time. It’s tech pornography. It’s as if we desire total carnal knowledge of our consumer electronics goods.”

Sounds a bit like a guy who hasn’t seen the real thing in a while.

Merkoski does believe reading will become more social. Whether it’s crowd-sourced travel or recipe books, to readers contributing to what happens next to our main character, writing and reading may become more of a social endeavor. In fact, Burning the Page may be one of the first social eBooks. Each chapter ends with a hyperlink to take you to Merkoski’s own site to continue the discussion online.

For a view of the eBook revolution outside of Amazon’s walled garden, look no further than Publisher’s Weekly’s “The Battle for 9.99.” Compiled from court documents and evidence in the current Apple price fixing case, this short Kindle single details Amazon’s loss-leading eBook pricing practices, and the steps the major publishers took to fight back. Perhaps some blood was spilled in the eBook fight after all.

I think as a writer starting out at the beginning of the eBook era, these books present an interesting history of how we got to the current eBook climate, and where we might be going. Personally I think the book will always exist in some form like it does today. The best writing and ideas come from structure, and I don’t think a book written by committee would fare any better than a horse designed by one. But eBooks are here to stay and for less than $9.99 you can get a view from two prominent sides.

Burning the Page – 4 out of 5

The Battle for $9.99 – 4.5 out of 5


Filed under Books + Publishing, Internal Debate 42

What’s Making Me Happy #3

Thanks everyone at the blog and Facebook for your condolences on the passing of my grandfather earlier this week. It really means a lot to me and my family 🙂

I thought I’d end the week with a round of what’s making me happy. We all have hard weeks from time to time, and I think it’s important to think about the things that still bring a smile to our faces.

1) When I’ve needed a laugh, old SNL’s have been there, particularly this sketch from 06-07 (Hugh Laurie):

SNL: Ghosts

2) And speaking of SNL there’s this Fresh Air interview with Bill Hader (my favorite cast member). Stefon!

3) I finally beat System Shock 2 on Sunday (as my sore back will attest). I’ll post a 13 years later review sometime next week, but key word AWESOME! And gross. Really really gross.

4) Apple’s patent victory over Samsung may actually help Microsoft sell more of the Surface. Ah, irony. And seriously you can’t patent rounded rectangles, zooming with your fingers, or tablets in general. Star Trek has had you beat for years!

5) I’ve started Chapter 5/6 of my “Secret” Non-Fiction project. Two months til release! Crunch time!

6) And speaking of secrets, here’s a new wrinkle. I’ve been reading a certain YA novel published 50 years ago (and loving it!) Who wrote it? Not going to tell you. Which book? Guess. Whatsit about? You have all the clues you need.

7) And lastly, I had a good visit with my Aunt this weekend. My wife and I took her to dinner at the Olive Garden and we got her to laugh. I tried a new beer (Peroni) which I daresay is better than Heineken, and had some Italian sausage in the birthplace of DiRusso’s. Mostly we just talked, which is something we don’t get to do a lot. It’s been a hard week, but there are still many special people in my life (including all of you).

Have a good weekend! God bless! And see you on labor-dabor day!


Filed under Round-Ups