There Is No Evidence the NSA Can Hack iPhones Today

December 31, 2013

These days anything you read about the NSA must be completely true, especially all the parts not actually said.

The articles from today all build on a few statements and a document from 2008 showing that the NSA offered a service wherein they could hack an iPhone they had in hand and read and transmit various pieces of data from the device surreptitiously.

However this document is from 2008 and speculates that perhaps in the future it could be done remotely. I also speculate that sometime in the future I will be able to fly to the moon, but that isn't the same thing as being able to.

With so many revelations about what the NSA is able to do based on nothing more than some documents and metric tons of speculation, anything marked 'NSA' today has to be true and the people at the NSA are all certified geniuses, including the janitors.

There is no way that people inside the NSA are such supermen (if they have women there, we can't tell because they don't file any paperwork) that they represent a separate species incomparable with ordinary humans. I bet there are people outside the NSA much smarter than the smartest person there.

People seem to attribute almost alien-like qualities to the NSA, but in reality they are a government agency, like the people responsible for, only with actual IQ. I bet a lot of their systems are just as buggy, fail to perform the required functionality, and suffer from poor design and maintenance, just like most other government agency software.

This doesn't mean we should take them lightly at all. Even if only some of what the revelations this year have made are true (and we never will know which ones actually function, as they won't admit this, even if we offer to be shot afterwards), it's enough to disgust the average person.

But to ascribe super powers to the NSA is pretty ridiculous. Given the enormous range of their apparent hacking expertise one would expect to find actual evidence out in the world. Since there are really really smart people outside the NSA (in much larger quantities) actively looking now that we know what they are supposedly doing there has to be evidence of many of these things. Even if they are very clever they are not so perfect that everything they do is invisible. After all, this is not the Matrix, and the laws of physics are still in force. You can't send packets of data out without being able to see them. You can't hide in the OS or a phone's radio system or masquerade as an app without someone, somewhere noticing it eventually.

Now the main reason the NSA is successful, at least assuming they are successful at all given they didn't notice the Boston Marathon bombers, or didn't want to mention them for fear of discovery, may be that they don't have to play nice, and follow laws like normal people do. In this way they can be more like the Mob and do stuff regular folks either refuse to do, or don't do for fear of going to jail. If you show up at a CEO's house with a gang of armed people and threaten to shoot the children, everyone will do what you want. Even the Mob knows that.

Of course they also know that if everyone suspects everything and throws up their hands at the futility of putting all your fingers and toes in the security dike and gives up, then their job is much easier. Whether the NSA's tools work or not it creates a useful paranoia and fear. It's like the people behind terrorism don't have to keep blowing things up to be successful; all they have to do is create a climate of terror and watch everything fall apart. I have no idea what the NSA thinks, maybe they assume that a frightened populace is easier to control. Maybe it makes finding whoever they are looking for (if anyone) easier. The only few people who do know won't talk to us.

The NSA hides behind a thick government wall, protected by willing or unwilling politicians and the judiciary, operating without interest in law or Constitution. Under these circumstances operating successfully, assuming you can determine what that actually is, is impossible for anyone outside to determine. They could be bumbling Keystone Kops or the Architect in the Matrix for all we know. But assuming they are Agent Smiths running around messing with the programming of the universe is a little much.

So can they hack my iPhone remotely today? Maybe but I doubt it, unless they did truly threaten individuals at Apple and somehow manage to keep the information completely outside of the public knowledge. After all the iPhone is pretty secure (when not jailbroken) and the people at Apple are pretty smart. For the NSA to actually be able to do this requires a giant combination of assumptions for which we have zero evidence. It assumes a massive conspiracy of people personally threatened with death or something horrible happening to their family; technological prowess unknown in the outside world; software skills lacking in the rest of the government; and employees at the NSA with access so dedicated to the cause their #2's are encrypted. All it takes for the information to leak out is one mistake, a few random bytes of I/O, a disgruntled employee with an ax to grind or sudden conscience or maybe a gambling debt, and suddenly this dark deep secret is spread all over the internet.

After all, Edward Snowden worked for these folks and got away with huge piles of secrets.

So I refuse to believe everything I read is automatically true, anymore than I believe every headline on Reddit is true. I may not live in Missouri, but I still want to see actual evidence and that has to be the focus of people smart enough to know where to look. If you view the NSA as the enemy to defeat them you must have more actual information. Speculation makes for fun reading but isn't in the end very useful to anyone.

Physics and Math aren't most student's favorite subjects but in the end they are the best tools to identifying and understanding what the NSA is actually doing and able to do. Clearly depending on politicians and judges and the general press for information and insight is pretty pointless.

In the early days of the internet people assumed that lies would not be able to survive long before the truth was discovered. Let's hope that early optimism isn't entirely dead today.