Apple vs. The FBI – What’s At Stake?

Apple and the FBI spent more than five hours on Monday testifying before Congress over the ongoing San Bernadino terrorist iPhone saga. While there weren’t any conclusions, it was a chance for both sides to lay out their case.

To recap, the FBI wants Apple to help it unlock an encrypted iPhone tied to the San Bernardino case by building a customized version of iOS. Apple, on the other hand, argues that doing so would compromise security of every iPhone moving forward.

The problem is that allowing the government to unlock a single device has huge implications for the future of privacy. This case is not about the San Bernadino terrorists. I don’t even think the FBI thinks it will gain any new information pertinent to their case. This is all about establishing precedent for future cases.

The Department of Justice is not asking Apple to turn off the phone’s security or bypass the pin. It wants Apple to make it easier for the FBI to get into the device by guessing the passcode, without destroying the encrypted data on the phone. Specifically, the order signed by US magistrate judge Sheri Pym says Apple “shall assist in enabling the search” of the suspect’s iPhone by creating a special firmware that would only work on that particular device.

The firmware that the judge wants Apple to create would disable the security feature that erases the phone’s contents after 10 unsuccessful login attempts. It would also disable the time limits that grow longer after each failed attempt and allow authorities to connect the phone to a computer to “brute force” the passcode so that officials don’t have to tap it into the phone by hand.

Apple isn’t arguing about technical feasibility; it’s concerned with legal precedent. “The implications of the government’s demands are chilling,” Cook says in his letter. “If the government can use the All Writs Act to make it easier to unlock your iPhone, it would have the power to reach into anyone’s device to capture their data.” The company is afraid that once a backdoor is created, other agencies and governments will come demanding access in the name of global security.

Given what we now know about the government’s technological abilities, I find it hard to believe that the NSA or CIA doesn’t already have the capability to unlock the phone.

A hearing on Apple’s appeal is scheduled for March 22nd. It’s almost certain that the the decision will be appealed by the losing side. The case could go then to a district court judge, and if challenged there, to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Ultimately, as many legal experts have predicted, the case could end up in the Supreme Court.

Amazon Fire Phone: Should You Buy One?

Amazon recently released the Amazon Fire Phone – their first foray into the smartphone market. The phone is built around the Amazon Prime experience and runs the same heavily modified version of Google Android found on the Kindle Fire tablet. This means that it will have access to the 240,000+ apps in the Amazon app store, but not every app available in the Google Play app store (roughly five times the size of the Amazon app store).

What’s missing? Most notably, Snapchat and YouTube.

Should You Buy the Amazon Fire Phone?

Amazon Fire PhoneThe Fire Phone is a market leader in a single category – mobile shopping at Amazon. That’s thanks to the “Firefly” feature, which is essentially an everything scanner. Once you load the Firefly app, you point the phone at just about any product, a DVD, a bottle of water, or any number of 70 million other products – and the Fire Phone will display it on Amazon.

Firefly also recognizes over 240,000 movies and TV episodes, and 160 live TV channels. Firefly uses X-Ray, powered by IMDb, to show information on actors, plot details, and related content—add titles to your Watchlist or download to watch later.

The Fire Phone also features a 13 MP camera that can shoot 1080P video.

The big bonus is a free year of Amazon Prime (normally $99) with every phone purchase. If you’re a Prime customer already, Amazon will add 12 months to your existing Prime subscription. Amazon is also including 1,000 Amazon Coins (a $10 value) for apps, games and in-app purchases with the phone. Finally, for photo fanatics, Amazon is offering free unlimited Cloud Drive storage for pictures you take with the Fire Phone.

How Much Does the Amazon Fire Phone Cost?

The Fire Phone will be an AT&T exclusive (at least to start), and is now available for pre-order (to launch on July 25). $200 for the 32GB version and $300 for the 64GB model along with the standard two-year contract.

Smartphones of the Future – The Future May Be As Soon as 2015

2015 could be the beginning of a significant shift in the smartphone landscape. Imagine a modular smartphone that you could assemble and customize yourself. Need three cameras? Need an extra battery? Project Ara may bring us the smartphones of the future and the future is near.

Project Ara is part of the Advanced Technology and Projects Group. The group is what Google retained in its sale of Motorola Mobility to Lenovo. Project Ara is an innovative plan to build an open-source smartphone hardware platform. Users would start with a base piece of hardware known as the Endo. Features – like extra batteries, cameras, GPS, etc. – would be added to the Endo as modules.

The hot-swappable modules give users the ability to truly customize a smartphone that works exactly how they want it to work. Power users could easily add a second battery. If your cell phone is your main camera, users could add the highest quality camera module.

Smart Phones of the Future:

Availability: An introductory phone is expected some time in 2015.

Cost: Google is planning on releasing two versions – a low-cost and upscale model. Production cost will range from $50 to $500.

Size: The size is in line with an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy phone.

Modules: The feature tiles known as modules will connect to the phone’s skeleton, known as the Endo via electropermanent magnets. When the magnets are hit with an “On” electrical pulse they will create a solid bond between the Endo and module. When they are hit with an “Off” pulse, the magnets will release the bond and you can replace the module.  The magnets don’t need a constant charge to keep a bond. These modules will be created by various developers using the open source MDK that was released today. Cameras, antennas, batteries, processors, and anything that can be fit into a module shell will be available. The shells of those modules will be 3D printed to a user’s specified design.

Buying Modules: Google will have an e-commerce site that will work alongside the Google Play store. You will be able to purchase modules online much the same way you now purchase apps online.

Updating Android: Currently, Android doesn’t support a modular system, but the operating system is being updated to support it, with an expected release date of early 2015.

Prototype: A pre-production prototype will be shown off in September of this year. The current prototype shown off at the Project ARA event doesn’t have the electropermanent magnet system. It uses clips to keep the modules in place. The power bus is also still being worked on.

Modules Can Have Different Functions: A module can support as many features as a developer can cram into it. A rear-facing display module could also be a tiny battery to offset the power drain of the display. If it fits within the module’s physical constraints, it’s good to go.

Why You Should Care: Project Ara phones are expected to have a life of five to six years – far longer than your current smartphone. Instead of updating your phone every two years, you save up for the latest modules. The goal is that when a new processor or high-megapixel camera is introduced, it’ll be available as a module for Ara owners to purchase.

Why Developers Should Care: The modular system is a way for developers to create a device that plugs directly into a phone with having to design and build a third-party piece of hardware. It removes the much of the industrial design elements and having to deal with Bluetooth or Wi-Fi radios for connectivity.