Vinny “The Hack”
Copyright © by Len Holman, 3/13/16
The FBI is struggling mightily to get Apple to unlock a cell phone. It is making public appeals, it is going to court, it is wringing its hands before congress, and so far, no joy. Specifically, it is the phone used by the San Bernardino shooter, Syed Farook. The feds are sure there is something on that phone they need to know. They just want to look. Just a peek. Now, I was shocked to discover that the vaunted Federal Bureau of Investigation, especially in this age of domestic terror-fears, cannot even open a cell phone. Have they no hackers employed? They have to beg Apple to open this phone because obviously they don’t know how to do it themselves. There are at least 150 other IPhones that need looking into all across this tech-mad nation, all sitting on a shelf somewhere, being watched by wistful potential seekers of information. I wonder about all those obstacle courses FBI trainees run, all those boring classes, all that target practice and hand-to-hand combat, all that—well, FBI-ness. I wonder, “Toward what end?” They recruit highly talented kids to work for them, and one smart phone outsmarts them? I don’t feel safer going to the mall when the feds say they have “heavy security” there. All I can think of is that some inanimate object with a nicely finished case has them stymied.
The Bureau is framing this contest in terms of (wait for it) “national security.” Apple is framing it in terms of (wait for it) “consumer privacy.” One analogy that the FBI likes to use is that of a bank vault. “Imagine a vault in a bank somewhere,” they say. “The combination is unknown, but it contains information vital to the security of the nation. All we’re asking Apple to do is to either give us the combination to this one safe, or have one of their seventy-grand-a-year techs come in and open it, and that will be it.” Of course this is a weak analogy, since we’re not talking about a vault in a bank; we’re not talking about one vault in one bank. We’re not referencing O. Henry’s story about Jimmy Valentine—that legendary master safe-cracker—rescuing a little girl from a locked vault, at the risk of exposing his identity. Sweet little story, but here’s the bigger picture according to Apple: Imagine, instead, that the FBI is asking for the combination –not of one vault—but of ALL the vaults in ALL the banks, worldwide. Once that combination is out there, NO vault is safe. Well, that’s the Apple story, anyway. The company says it will cost $101,000 just in labor costs and about 2 to 4 weeks to get ‘er done—that is, to build a new version of its operating system, which some Apple employees are calling “GovtOS.” And that total doesn’t count the TWO high-security, Agents-of-S.H.I.E.L.D.-proof building which will be used to house the new OS. The arcane world of encryption and cyber-everything is muddling minds too focused on Trump’s hand size, but THIS case is slowly wending its way through the courts, and I have no doubt that it will end up with the Supremes (“Someday We ’ll be Together”). Why doesn’t the head of the FBI bypass Apple and it’s reluctant Jobs-clone, Tim Cook, bypass all that messy court stuff, pick up the damn phone and let his fingers do the hacking (I’m assuming HIS phone is secure)?
First he calls Edward Snowden: “Hey, Ed. How’s the weather in that embassy? Yeah, I can sympathize…listen, I need a favor…what? Get you exonerated and we’ll talk? No way, Ed, can’t do it…political hot potato, but if you’ll just…hello? Hello?” If that doesn’t work out, he can get a hold of the NSA, which listens to everything and hacks stuff like baby monitors, but who didn’t know North Korea was going to test a nuclear device (maybe they had the wrong channel?). But as we all know from movies and TV and 9/11, the federal agencies we pay for don’t talk to each other, so the NSA thing is too long of a shot. But there IS one avenue left to explore: a call to Vinny “The Hack.”
Practically every city in Wired America has a Vinny, or someone like him. The guy who can get you a cold piece so you can shoot up your office; the guy who can get you a truckload of Viagra, so you can shoot up your girlfriends; the guy who can get you an elephant or a mouse. And the guy who deals in more esoteric goods and services—like breaking into a smart phone. The Director of the FBI needs to meet a Vinny, explain his predicament, make a (I imagine) rather large payment, wait for a time for that important midnight phone call, and go get the code needed. No Apple lawyers, no court decrees, no hassle. I have dealt with a few Vinnys, and so have cops nationwide. They are an invaluable resource at times, and though they remain in shadow, they cast light for the needy. If something very important is on that phone, like the names of terrorist wannabes or the locations of intended target, what the hell is the FBI doing screwing around with legal crap and the court of public ignorance? If the phone is really THAT important, the feds need to make that call.
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