Thoughts on the FBI, Apple, and a side order of WTF…

OK, so I’ve been thinking about this whole kerfuffle (or has it elevated to a brouhaha at this point?) about the FBI going to court and forcing Apple to (as I understand it) develop a special version of iOS that doesn’t have the “10 attempts and data self-destructs” option.  I’ve got thoughts, believe me, and some of them disturb even me.

Let’s start with the whole request in the first place.  Tim Cook is right: not only is the request potentially improper on its face, but even the creation of a special software stack that doesn’t have the self-destruct feature opens a big can of worms probably nobody wants to open.  It’s not that the Fed would use it improperly: they would, no questions asked.  It’s that the moment Apple creates it there’s the potential for naer-do-wells to get the code.  No airlock is ever 100% airtight, and even as secure as I know Apple’s campus to be it would leak out somehow.  It’s … pun totally intended here … forbidden fruit almost worthy of a 007 movie-plot scenario to get.  Somebody would, you know it.

But then I start thinking of the implications here.  The FBI can’t unlock it?  Now, I know more than one person is saying “oh, it’s not that they can’t, they just want the legal precedent!”  I can accept that, but it still lingers in the back of my mind that all my life as a hacker and somebody who often skirts right up to the edge of “legal” on certain things that I’ve wasted a hell of a lot of time covering my tracks.  I mean, think about this seriously. Going to court, especially in northern California (Apple’s home turf) to get this writ required some pretty serious lawyering.  If you’ve read the docket, it actually is a novel approach to the problem, and that wasn’t done by some first-year law intern.  Real lawyers had to craft those briefs, and to this armchair legal scholar I can honestly say it was VERY well done.  It had the hallmarks of someone who knew exactly what they were doing.

And the Fed never wastes lawyers on trivial shit.  I believe that the FBI can’t crack it, or at least crack it easily.

As a teenager I heard horror stories of the FBI using data recovery techniques to do discovery on hard drives of BBSes and the like to get evidence of warez that were deleted.  I’ve heard some wild theories as to how the FBI did some of these things, probably fueled by too many teenagers watching too many X-Files episodes.  But even saner and cooler heads thought the FBI had some pretty good tech, and could do some pretty impressive things with the then-primitive tech of the 80s.  Hell, some of the equipment we regularly used back then was so dodgy even the owner couldn’t guarantee his files were there at any given moment.

So here we have the FiBbys asking Apple to help them crack this with (what amount to) a copy protection defeat just about any skript kiddie could hack.

I’ve pointed this out glibly in my Facebook post, but.. don’t they have code crackers at the FBI?  I mean, really.  How hard is it to JMP instruction around the 10-times-and-your-out code?  Isn’t there some way you could just pull the WRITE line from the memory store so that a delete couldn’t happen?

Oh, wait.  Mmmmmmaybe it’s not that simple.  Maybe Apple not only won’t code around this, maybe they can’t.

Consider this possibility.  Apple now does most of their own chip design and production.  And we know that newer models of the iPhone use some of the more advanced techniques to guard sensitive data in a secure part of the machine with its own rings and stuff.  But the 5C (the phone in question) doesn’t have that protected partition.

But what if the crypto is handed off to an internal cypher chip that has a “bad password” function INSIDE THE CHIP, not easily rewritable in the firmware, that destroys the data after 10 password attempts are recorded?  There’s no signals to mine on the bus, and no easy way to just (theoretically) fiddle with IO pins and get the behavior to stop.  Ten passwords, data store is corrupted, all done inside Apple’s A6 little magic box.  It may even be coded in the microcode of either the CPU or GPU portions of the chip, and that’s not likely easily changed (assuming it can be changed at all).

This is theory.  But I think it’s a valid point: Apple thought this through. They’re going to fight this in the courts, and if they lose they’re going to throw their hands up and then publically say “we can’t even do it, and here’s why.”  Congress will argue, and we’ll wind up with another lousy key-escrow proposal (or something even more idiotic), it’s already starting.  But in the end there’s millions of iPhones out there that CAN’T BE HACKED.

Steve Jobs may have been an ok guy after all.  One of his (likely) design decisions may cause McAfee to eat a shoe.

Today’s rant.

Apple’s announcements yesterday? Color me unimpressed.

And another thing. All the analysts that are calling the Kindle Fire “not an iPad killer” are totally missing the point. If the Kindle Fire does 80% of what an iPad can do and costs 40% of the price, it is an iPad killer.

Just like Android hasn’t been an iPhone killer.

Current Smartphone Share


Why Steve Jobs does not matter.

Steve Jobs is stepping down from Apple as CEO. He will be continuing on as Chairman. The news media has gone crazy over “OMG, what will happen now?”

Very little, in reality.  And it shows just how stupid a lot of people are about how all companies, even Apple, are run.

Yes, unlike most CEOs, Steve Jobs had a lot of input into design decisions.  More than any other tech company executive, Jobs seemed particularly prescient in determining high-level designs and even some low-level features.  But in the end, he had as much to do with the actual end product as the CEO of ExxonMobile has to do with the formulation of the gasoline you buy at the pump.

To be sure, Jobs made sure Apple hired the best, and set the overall tone for how the company is (micro-)managed.  And I have no doubt that for high-profile products he was in many of the design meetings ensuring that his vision was the one that was getting pushed.

But in the end, it’s more about the people Steve Jobs HIRED than about Steve himself.  Tim Cook is one of the people that Jobs has had a strong influence over.

As long as nobody panics and the Board of Directors stays out of everybody’s way, there’s no reason why Apple can’t continue for the next ten years being the same company they have been the last 10.

In which Apple won’t take my money..

Today I had what amounts to the worst experience I’ve ever had in an Apple Store.

Before I start, let me just say that this is, in the grand scheme of things, a minor annoyance.  Nobody at the Apple Store was less than courteous (although admittedly it is a bit crazy in there), and it wasn’t like the worst experience I’ve ever had in retail in general.  But it was an extremely frustrating experience nonetheless, and one that has me scratching my head in amazement at why it needed to be so f$@#^ing difficult.

Anyway, my experience.  After poking around a bit at various machines, I decided to purchase a particular iMac and a few accessories after deciding it wasn’t worth fixing my old Apple Cinema Display.  After kinda standing around for 15 minutes, I approached somebody holding an iPad and asked if I could talk to somebody about buying an iMac.

About five minutes later, I get approached by a young man who happily talked to me a few minutes about the machines.  I didn’t get my answers answered exactly to my satisfaction, but just getting it out allowed me to come to a decision about which machine I wanted and the options.

I then asked him to get me a total, as I needed to, in my exact words, “walk across the street to USBank and get a cashier’s check” for the total amount.  He kindly created a subtotal from a spreadsheet and sent me on my way.

After navigating the bank, I went back to the rear of the store and went directly to the person who looked vaguely like a cashier.  She then proceeded to inform met hat they could not take a cashier’s check.  They would take Mastercard, VISA, and a personal check or travelers checks.

Wait a minute.  You can take a personal check, which has absolutely no real guarantee of payment, but not take a cashier’s check written by a major national financial institution like USbank?  Worse, I thought: I now have a $1666.00 check written to you that you won’t take.

I can’t wrap my head around this. Really, I can’t.  How can you take a personal check.. even weirder, a travelers check (people still use those?) and not handle a cashier’s check?

What happened next gets even weirder.  I talk to the “manager”, and she (more on this in a minute) tells me they have no ability to do this, to the point of encouraging me to take my business elsewhere if I don’t like it.  It is only after I press the issue that she begrudgingly gives me a 408 number to “customer service” which I call as I’m leaving the store.

Of course the 408 number was wrong: it said something about “journalists”.  I bounced though a few people and eventually had an enlightening conversation with somebody in the right department who couldn’t even really tell me what the reason for the policy was, or more frustratingly, seemed to just foist everything off onto the store manager.

As of this writing, I’m waiting to hear back from this person and what they can do.

I have some pretty strong personal feelings about Apple the company, and I guess a lot of  those “warm fuzzy” feelings I have about the company died today.  The entire process of dealing with a crowded store with employees who were overwhelmed, dealing with a “manager” with no actual decision-making abilities, and a customer service department that seemed powerless to actually explain policies or make exceptions has reminded me that Apple is now just another company with stockholders to keep happy, and all that “think different” marketing is just marketing.

I still want my new, shiny iMac.  But I guess I also want my “inner child” enthusiasm for Apple as a company back, too.  I still believe Apple makes some of the best stuff on Earth in their product categories (my personal opinions on iPhone not withstanding), and is a company that is driven by some very ingenious engineers.  However, Apple’s image in my head was for a long time driven by my childhood experiences of the Apple Computer that managed to be both an engineering driven company that had a very “soft” human side.

I believe in the power of words.  And I guess there are no more powerful words than the name of the company.  It once was Apple Computer.  Today, it is just Apple, Inc.  And today, my inner child feels a little like he just had his piggy bank taken by the banker in Mary Poppins.  I’m still going to get my money back, and the computer I want.. but Apple is no longer a friend, they are just another soulless corporation trying to take my money.

This is the last post I expected to make

This post has been written, posted, and edited on an Apple iPad.

For a lot of people I know, that isn’t very remarkable. For me, it’s a pretty giant leap. I’ve never been a huge fan of the Apple iPhone and the iPod touch. Yes, I had an iPod touch that I used on a fairly regular basis, but I missed the simplicity of the older iPod interface, and I felt that the additional features of the touch interface really didn’t add much more compared to what it took away.

Further, I’m also not a huge fan of the Apple “We Control All You Will See and Hear” attitude regarding the App Store and its bizarre policies that nobody really ever seems to totally understand completely. With more weird rules, exceptions, and policy interpretations it seems more complicated (and considerably less transparent) than the US tax code.

However, a client gave me the opportunity to get an iPad at their expense, so I figured why the hell not.

And, I now totally understand what the fuss is about.

I’ve been a big fan of tablets for quite a while. Many of you will remember the now seemingly antique “Windows for Pens” tablets I tinkered with in the past. A few of you will remember my beloved Fujitsu tablet laptop, which even after having gotten a ton of cash for it, I still miss.

But once again, Apple has demonstrated that they “get it”. The iPad is exactly what I personally have been waiting for in a tablet computer. Decent battery life, access to media on-the-go, and enough horsepower and applications to actually be useful.

It isn’t a replacement for my laptop.. Or for that matter even my netbook. It also demonstrates to me why the iPhone will probably never be my preferred handheld platform, either. There’s a lot I don’t like about it.. but the hardware is top notch, and everything is well put together on the software side as well.

And Netflix runs on it. That is quite simply made of awesome.