Rumors that Apple is building an iPhone impenetrable to government agencies are starting to take shape. Earlier this week, the company re-hired the godfather of encryption Jon Callas, who helped create the super-secure Blackphone, following an abrupt end to Apple’s contentious legal battle with the FBI in March.
Callas worked for Apple in the 1990s and late 2000s, designing encryption software for Macintosh computers. He’s also built several cybersecurity companies, such as Entrust, PGP Corporation, and more recently the Silent Circle, which manufactures the Blackphone.
Apple hasn’t revealed exactly what Callas’ new role entails, but the timing of the hire aligns with CEO Tim Cook’s ramped-up campaign to make devices everywhere more secure. And with the FBI virtually promising to share the technology it used to crack the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone with local police departments, Apple has a major incentive to take precautions in making future devices with top-notch security measures.
“Jon is someone who has deep appreciation of all sides of the story,” Phil Dunkelberger, CEO of PGP Corp, a company that developed an encrypted emailing system and was co-founded by Callas, told Money Magazine.
Security has been a key selling point for Apple — one that may have been weakened after the FBI successfully cracked Syed Rizwan Farook’s iPhone 5c this past spring. But Callas could help prevent that from happening on future generations of iPhones.
The Blackphone encrypts calls, texts, video chats, and cloud storage service. And users can customize security settings for third-party apps, which are usually a weak spot for privacy.
Those weak spots in devices, apps and websites are what law enforcement and intelligence agencies count on to gather information that may help criminal investigations. Bringing the Blackphone’s level of security to the 44 percent Americans who own iPhones could cripple local and federal law enforcement agencies that are struggling to keep up with technology that outpaces their capabilities.
In a Reddit Ask Me Anything forum earlier this year, Callas broke down why he believes encryption is essential for everyone, not just for governments:
[Law enforcement agencies] wants their life to be easy [sic]. People are scared. But we are at a point where we need [cryptography]. Do you want private health care? Do you want corporate governance? Do you want the criminals to steal phones and resell them? Do you want to be able to buy stuff on the [internet]? Do you even want [an internet? Well, we need [cryptography].
On top of the San Bernardino case, the FBI was involved in at least 10 other cases where it tried to compel Apple or another third party to bypass iPhones’ passcode security. The FBI won one such case without Apple’s help when a California judge forced a woman to unlock her phone using her fingerprint to assist in an organized crime investigation.
Tech companies have repeatedly fought against the government requests for consumer data. And the government has fought back — but the debate over whether Apple and other tech companies should be able to create encryption technology for the masses without giving government agencies backdoor access has been fractious.
FBI Director James Comey has staunchly opposed mass encryption on mobile devices, while former NSA director Michael Hayden has supported Apple’s position on privacy. President Barack Obama said during his speech at SXSW in March that making devices with encryption could prevent the government from doing its job, but that “you cannot take an absolutist view” that values “strong, perfect encryption” over government surveillance and vice versa.
But if Apple can successfully make security effortless for consumers, the company could forge a new reality for law enforcement agencies. The company sought Congress’ help along with the FBI during a hearing in March to no avail. With Callas on board, Apple may not have to wait for a legislative solution.