Encryption

Does Anybody Believe the FBI Isn't Out to Defeat Encryption?

The talking points insist this Apple case is an isolated incident. Evidence suggests otherwise.

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Nothing is more trustworthy than endlessly repeated government talking points!
James Comey, FBI

FBI Director James Comey starts his defense of their effort to force Apple to help them break into the iPhone of San Bernardino terrorist and killer Syed Farook with a sentence that is that is extremely hard to take seriously: "The San Bernardino litigation isn't about trying to set a precedent or send any kind of message."

That's from a Sunday contribution on the Lawfare blog, focusing on the same talking points we've been hearing from the feds since a judge last week ordered Apple to take some actions that would make it easier for the FBI to brute force the passcode into Farook's phone. Comey insists that what the FBI is asking for is very narrow and is not about breaking encryption or creating a "master key" to force back doors into encryption.

There are also plenty of appeals to emotion to try to make people feel bad for resisting their efforts. The title of the post is "We Could Not Look the Survivors in the Eye if We Did Not Follow this Lead," a sentiment repeated in the content of the short commentary

The problem with treating Comey's claim credibly is that we all know full well that the White House, the executive branch, federal law enforcement, and intelligence are all united in a concerted effort to do pretty much the opposite of what Comey says: to find ways to break through encryption. Bloomberg got its hands on a memo from a strategy meeting from last Thanksgiving that showed that what Comey is doing here is exactly the White House's plan:

The approach was formalized in a confidential National Security Council "decision memo," tasking government agencies with developing encryption workarounds, estimating additional budgets and identifying laws that may need to be changed to counter what FBI Director James Comey calls the "going dark" problem: investigators being unable to access the contents of encrypted data stored on mobile devices or traveling across the Internet. Details of the memo reveal that, in private, the government was honing a sharper edge to its relationship with Silicon Valley alongside more public signs of rapprochement.

The argument that accessing Farook's iPhone is an isolated request is very clearly a talking point planned well out in advance, and like many efforts that have come from the White House, we're seeing an obviously organized media blitz to sell it, to the point that they're overplaying their hand. The Department of Justice (DOJ) responded to Apple CEO Tim Cook's public statement warning against the FBI's demands with a federal court filing calling his concerns an effort to protect his "brand marketing." Apple hadn't even responded to the court's request yet. This was a public statement from Cook and Apple. And the DOJ responded with a court filing without even waiting to see what arguments Apple actually presented to the judge.

Cook is sticking to his guns, sending an email out to Apple employees telling them "Apple is a uniquely American company. It does not feel right to be on the opposite side of the government in a case centering on the freedoms and liberties that government is meant to protect." He wants the government to form a tech commission to discuss the privacy implications of what the FBI wants. And he reminds everybody of the obvious that Comey is hoping we'll ignore: That if the government is successful in forcing Apple to help them here, they can come back to the courts again and again and again to order them again and again and again. Comey's counterargument can be best paraphrased as "No, we won't," even though everybody knows full well they have a mission to defeat encryption.

In some other news related to the encryption fight, Donald Trump said that people should boycott Apple, which tells you everything you need to know about what Trump thinks of civil liberties (if you didn't already know he doesn't give a damn about them).

It also turns out the FBI wouldn't have needed to break into Farook's phone at all, Apple claims, if the FBI hadn't arranged to have Farook's passcode reset while the phone was in custody, which cut off the ability to back up the phone's contents to iCloud (The FBI responded that the iCloud back up doesn't collect all phone data, and they still would have wanted access to the phone from Apple).

Find the fight confusing? Read my explanation as to why this encryption fight is bigger than one terrorist's phone and how it could affect you here

NEXT: California's Bipartisan Push Against Occupational Licensing

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  1. Remember Ashcroft? He was pro-encryption. Despite his other faults I like him a lot.

    But I value this issue more than most do.

    1. Well, obviously you’re trying to hide something or you wouldn’t have anything to hide.

      1. Back in the 90s I seriously considered encrypting all personal emails. Not my problem if the recepient didnt have my public key.

        1. If early email adopters had just made digital signatures standard, spam would have never been a problem.

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  2. I think this all stems from the Government’s inability to bid for competitive security contractors.

    Anecdotal inside evidence aside, where is the proof that the government, when bidding for security contractors to update their systems, install new systems, or actively seek vulnerabilities has achieved what a large private sector firm would achieve with cost and benefit.

    McAfee offered to crack the phones for free.

    Ain’t no deals like that. Bet McAfee has some skunkworks programs like Prism in the works on sale. /tinfoil

    1. This isn’t about the one phone. It is about all our phones.

      1) The government is not having trouble getting security experts. They are one of the largest black hat employers out there. They also have data centers that would make Google blush. They dropped $1.5 Billion on a data center in Utah, and who knows how many others they are building since $1.5 Billion is a drop in the bucket with the massive budgets they command.

      2) The government could crack this phone, but it will take a large amount of time and computing resources. They certainly have the capacity, but not to do this at scale.

      3) And that is the real reason they are doing this. For one off cases, the government could handle this themselves. But they want to be able to get hundreds or thousands (or more) phones decrypted in a matter of hours- not months. The government isn’t giving a decrypted phone to some gumshoe who then follows leads. No, they have automated systems that hoover this data from all around the world, normalize it and then slam it into a massive data store that is then crawled by various automated search/match systems.

      When you are talking about billions of people to track, this isn’t about some analyst sitting at a desk following leads. The future of Intelligence is very smart people writing sophisticated data mining systems that automatically follow the data and surface leads. When those leads are surfaced, they get a judge to get more data and rinse and repeat.

      1. Supposedly, the spy agencies already have the capability of cracking iOS 8 and 9. If that is true, and it likely is, then what this whole charade is really about is the gov’t bringing its illegal capabilities to public light in order to gain public support (from the part of the public who naturally buys into the “BECAUSE TERRORISM” argument).

        It is basically that they are tired of having to do parallel construction and want to be able to freely trample rights openly and with the help of technology manufacturers.

    2. And McAfee is full of it. He’s not decrypting anything – rather, his plan is to use “social engineering” which basically boils down to making an educated guess at the passcode.

  3. People can encrypt things between themselves much as they want no matter the snooping – nobody mentions this. The potential of quantum computers are huge wildcard for evolution of this subject as well.

    1. The potential of quantum computers are huge wildcard for evolution of this subject as well.

      Huge wildcard is a bit sensationalistic. At best it’s somewhere between the http/https migration and the driving/self-driving car migration.

      While the best *theoretical* quantum computers completely overcome some forms of encryption for other algorithms in use today, they only lessen the encryption strength/brute force time by an order of magnitude or even half. So, just like with rising sea levels, double the length of your encryption keys every other year for the next decade and you’ll be well ahead of the game. Double them once or twice sometime in the next three decades if you’re feeling lazy.

      Moreover, part of the problem with the iPhone has little/nothing to do with the compute power. Quantum may mean exactly nothing if all the encrypted data has to be read in/out of the device with electrons. Just like outrunning the bear; I don’t necessarily need my data to be encrypted forever.

      1. So, just like with rising sea levels, double the length of your encryption keys every other year for the next decade and you’ll be well ahead of the game.

        You won’t just be well ahead of the game; your encryption keys will so strong that they’ll be unusable for practical purposes before the end of that decade.

  4. In some other news related to the encryption fight, Donald Trump said that people should boycott Apple, which tells you everything you need to know about what Trump thinks of civil liberties (if you didn’t already know he doesn’t give a damn about them).

    I saw a cluster of biznismen chatting about this at ORD on Friday evening, and to a man they were thrilled to think Apple might actually be keeping their data safe. Tiny bright spot.

  5. It seems FBI changed the password themselves for they ca unlock it themselves. STAND WITH APPLE

    1. In the gov’t’s defense (sort of but not really), a San Bernardino county employee changed the password once without consulting with the feds, and now they are screwed.

      That shows without any doubt that the gov’t is incompetent (right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing) and that they had their shot at getting into the iPhone already. What they are demanding now is for Apple to give them a second chance to undo their screw-up.

      But of course we citizens are used to seeing the gov’t give itself and its favored elites mulligans (like Hillary getting a pass on her emails full of top secret info), so this is no surprise. It’s just that the gov’t is so brazen about giving itself powers nowadays…

  6. In some other news related to the encryption fight, Donald Trump said that people should boycott Apple, which tells you everything you need to know about what Trump thinks of civil liberties (if you didn’t already know he doesn’t give a damn about them).

    Most politicians would show more respect for civil liberties by calling for the use of force.

    1. Don’t worry, he’s promised to force them to make their products in the US.

      1. and make Mexico pay for it

    2. Don’t worry, he’s also all for use of force against Apple if it comes down to it.

  7. It also turns out the FBI wouldn’t have needed to break into Farook’s phone at all, Apple claims, if the FBI hadn’t arranged to have Farook’s passcode reset while the phone was in custody, which cut off the ability to back up the phone’s contents to iCloud (The FBI responded that the iCloud back up doesn’t collect all phone data, and they still would have wanted access to the phone from Apple).

    But but but…if they had done that, they wouldn’t have such a grand opportunity to get either a favorable precedent or the public outrage to pass new anti-privacy legislation!

  8. This kind of reminds me when caller ID first became a thing. There was much uproar over people having this new ability to see the phone number of an incoming call. Except it wasn’t new; government and business had had it for a while. The uproar came when the little people got the technology. This has the same flavor. For Comey and his ilk can’t stand the little people having the same technology as them. Encryption for me, but not for thee.

    1. What’s most annoying about Caller ID is that there’s no regulation requiring that all business lines send CID data AND that it has to be *correct*.

      The only lines that should be allowed to have blocked CID are residential and places like shelters for victims of domestic abuse.

      If the telcos have the technology to enforce correct CID and block CID spoofing, then they ought to be required to use it.

      There are many fraudulent things that can be done with phones which telcos are not *required to block* unless an individual or business requests that they do so – and then it’s only applied to the lines it’s requested for.

      What’s even more irritating is that *doing the right thing* and preemptively blocking things like ‘slamming’ and ‘cramming’ costs telcos nothing, so why do they not do it by default?

      Circa 1999 there was a small increase in some federal phone line tax. So did the telcos simply set a guy down at a computer and spend a minute or five to login, navigate to the proper part of the billing software and type in a new number? No – they did that AND put a one time one penny fee on MILLIONS of phone lines as a ‘service fee’ for five minutes worth of ‘work’ to type in a single new value for the tax which the billing software would then automatically change on all the bills. Just like in Superman 3 and Office Space but the telcos got away with it.

  9. Obviously they are trying to take advantage of a crisis to restrict civil liberties. They don’t need access to the phone. If any of the relatives are angry then maybe they should do a better job of getting to know their co-workers. And maybe the FBI should do a better job of evaluating mail order brides. And maybe we should stop blaming “ISIS” when this guy’s own father said, “Stop complaining about Israel. They will be gone in a few years anyway.”

    Comey is producing drug war propaganda for heroin just like olde-tyme Reefer Madness. I don’t trust a word out of his mouth. He is obviously only interested in creating new crimes and panic and hysteria so he can create his police state.

  10. Good piece Scott,

    I don’t like being a broken record, but it would be worth noting in these stories re: Apple and the FBI … that they have gone down this road more than once before.

    meaning, if you really want to hammer home the point that the Government doesn’t really care about “this phone” or the data on it, and is far more interested in acquiring “the means” of bypassing consumer encryption… it may help to show that they’ve made the same argument repeatedly in different contexts

    As noted by the EFF =
    “Ultimately, Judge Orenstein’s order might signal the opening of a new legal front in the Second Crypto Wars, or, as the Washington Post suggests, it might be something more routine. In either case, the order demonstrates some of the thorny legal issues that will arise if the government keeps pushing for “exceptional access” to encrypted devices and communications. The fight over this particular phone may be moot… but we fear this won’t be the last time an American judge will be asked to order that Apple compromise its security, and possibly everyone’s security in the process.

  11. How come Apple doesn’t have a backup of what the iCloud password for the device was (or would have been compared against) before it was changed?

    1. If they did, it would be a very, very bad thing for security.

      1. This. Your data isn’t safe if Apple has a copy of your password.

    2. While I have no idea what specific process Apple uses, generally servers do not store passwords, they only store hashes of the passwords. A hash function is a computation that is very fast to do one way, but very slow to reverse. When you type a password, the server takes what you entered, runs it through the hash function, and compares that value to the stored hash for your account.

      There is a lot more to it than that, but those are the basics. In short, Apple can’t hand over the iCloud password, because they have no idea what it is; all they could possibly know is the hash. Assuming that Apple uses above average hashes, even with all of the computing power at the government’s disposal, it would still take years to decades to crack the hash.

      1. Yes, what I really meant by that parenthetical expression was “(or what its hash would have been compared against)”, which I guess is the same as simply saying its hash. If they restored the stored hash of the password to its previous value, the device would start backing up to the cloud, would it not? Maybe not everything, but a lot.

        Or would the fact that it tried once to back up to the cloud (if in fact it got a connection and did try) and the password hashes didn’t match mean it won’t try again?

        1. Like I said, it gets more complicated. Servers don’t store the correct version of a hash, they store a ‘salted’ version, so the version you get off the server won’t match for purposes of logging in. There are a lot of obstacles to getting a user’s password. The second problem is that Apple has a feature that will delete the user’s data if too many bed attempts are made, so they only have so many tries to get it right.

        2. Reverse engineering a password or pass key from an “authenticator” is what we call “non trivial”. Ie, really fucking hard. And the issue is it all requires brute force attacks, which is the crux of the FBI’s problem. Apple auto-deletes the data on the phone after 10 tries. That’s what the FBI wants apple to defeat.

    3. They don’t need the iCloud password, just the 4 digit pin code – the FBI changing the iCloud password just meant that the phone wouldn’t make a new backup automatically.

      1. The FBI didn’t change the code, it was some schmuck in San Bernardino before the phone was turned over to the FBI.

  12. “It does not feel right to be on the opposite side of the government in a case centering on the freedoms and liberties that government is meant to protect.”

    I get that Apple is full of leftists, but really? The government is supposed to be in the job of PROTECTING our freedoms and liberties? How inattentive to the real world do you have to be to think that’s what they actually do?

    1. Try and remember that every public-statement by the Govt and by Apple are just competing PR-campaigns pretending to be working on behalf of your interests.

      its marketing, all the way down.

  13. Never thought I would see the day when I agree with both Apple and Shack. Oh well, maybe Reason hasn’t completely gone off track after all.

  14. The FBI has apparently recruited the victims of the shooting to take a stand against Apple. Apple, why do you hate orphans and widows?

  15. It also turns out the FBI wouldn’t have needed to break into Farook’s phone at all, Apple claims, if the FBI hadn’t arranged to have Farook’s passcode reset while the phone was in custody, which cut off the ability to back up the phone’s contents to iCloud

    Wait, what? I read the linked story and it still doesn’t make sense. Government officials reset Farook’s iCloud password… because…? (I imagine the excuse would be so that no other person could get remote access but Apple could have locked down the account pretty easily.)

    1. I’m from the FBI. You’re obviously a very smart person who knows a lot about technology and we’d like to have you on the force. Please contact us immediately.

  16. What makes governments dangerous? Power.

    What does government surveillance do? Increases government power.

    “You have nothing to worry about if you have done nothing wrong.”

    That depends on who is defining what is wrong and what is right.

    Are political opponents doing something wrong?

    Are unfavorable news reporters or agencies doing something wrong?

    What happens when the President (any President) or his devotees, who can find out about anyone in the US, does not like someone and decides to do something about it; whether it be political or personal?

    Government officials seem oblivious that the potential for abuse from these programs is astronomical. We can not have government surveillance that in the hands of less than desirable government officials (which is most of them) can silence or destroy dissenters and political opposition.

    We already have a safe that can not be unlocked even with a Judge’s order, it is our mind. Governments have not had a master key or backdoor key to our minds since the beginning of time and we as a species have still managed to survive and multiple.

    It is not about why they pass such ridiculous laws or the purity of their intentions, it is about what some future demented politician might use these laws for.

    1. Governments have not had a master key or backdoor key to our minds since the beginning of time

      Oh, just you wait.

  17. We’ve seen this story before. Do you think the Patriot Act was drafted after 9/11? No, it was sitting on the wish list for a while and when the right kind of crisis happened, it was pulled off the shelf and passed.

    1. That’s exactly what this reminds me of.

    2. This is exactly correct. The PATRIOT act was a hodge-podge of nice-to-haves by every security wonk ever.

      1. I think Instapundit said exactly that on, like, 9-13.

      2. Not just security wonks, but every law enforcement agency that had been thwarted by silly “privacy” concerns.
        Remember, the enhanced surveillance the Patriot Act allowed, wasn’t specific to terrorist activity – something that slipped by in the panic following the WTC attacks.

        *NEVER MAKE IMPORTANT DECISIONS WHILE GRIPPED BY EMOTIONS*
        …especially ones that are difficult to reverse.

  18. In some other news related to the encryption fight, Donald Trump said that people should boycott Apple, which tells you everything you need to know about what Trump thinks of civil liberties (if you didn’t already know he doesn’t give a damn about them).

    TRUMPELLOS ASSEMBLE!

    HE HAS BESMIRCHED GLORIOUS LEADER!

    1. WHOOP WHOOP!

    2. But is anyone better than him?!!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!!

      /john stroke out

    3. Rubio and Hillary would be just as bad as Trump.

  19. Hey, just a passing thought… when I’ve been listening to this Apple situation from various news sources, the words “Obama administration” have been curiously absent. I seem to remember between 2000-2008 that every time something ugly happened at any level of the federal government, the words “Bush Administration” was applied. Just something I noticed.

    1. The left has been kind of quiet about this in general. On the one hand, they side with the authoritarian media (e.g. NY Post) and figures (e.g. Trump). On the other hand, they have to hate Apple now. What to do??

  20. “”We Could Not Look the Survivors in the Eye if We Did Not Follow this Lead,”

    translation:

    we could not make a rational argument to take away your rights, so we have used emotional appeal instead.

    there. i fixed it.

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  24. For those who watch the CW’s “Arrow”:

    Doesn’t James Comey bear a creepy resemblance to “Malcolm Merlin / Ra’s Al Ghul”?

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  26. Reason has no entered into paranoid/conspiracy territory. Apple supporters are alarmist morons – asking to examine one stupid iPhone is being blown up as some worldwide conspiracy.Apple has also opened up their innards before – to China when doing soade money. Apple’s ethics disappear when money is involved. Apple is the greediest company on the planet and Tim Cook the dopiest jackass around.

    1. In a nation where there are so many laws that “you can commit three felonies before you arrive at work in the morning”, where digging a drainage ditch, on your own property can bring the weight of FEDGOV down on you, where asset forfeiture can happen, without charges being brought against you, the idea that heightened vigilance against government intrusion is hardly the stuff of “conspiracy theories”.
      You aren’t paranoid if they, really, are out to get you.

      1. How an entire new operating system designed with a backdoor to defeat encryption is necessary to unlock a single iPhone is beyond ridiculous. It’s insane. It’s like saying that we need a skeleton key that can open every lock in country in order to enter one crackhouse.

  27. The secret service crashes a drone on the white house lawn and we get drone laws
    The FBI changes the pass code so that Apple has to break the code

    sounds like a conspiracy to me just like fast and furious

  28. Tim Cook is gay so I think the FBI is just being homophobic.

  29. Does Anybody Believe the FBI Isn’t Out to Defeat Encryption?

    I’m sure there’s someone out there somewhere stupid enough to believe that.

  30. Can I not rationally stay true to civil liberties and privacy rights while at the same time holding the notion: FUCK murderers.

    Also as an off the cuff analogy, a US squad in WW2 opens up on a German troop, after the fight they find a Nazi officer with a sealed letter in his vest. Do they clam up in moral quandary or are they justified in opening the letter to see view its contents?

    Time to signal: I do not see all Muslims as terrorists but these murderers we’re enemy combatants, there is no blur to their affirmation nor their conviction, they saw it through to the end… Fuck big brother, fuck terrorists, and fuck it! This isn’t a DOJ red herring to fervor up the base before it’s time to set next years budget. This is the sealed envelope plucked off the corpse of a dead enemy combatant. The Feds already crack the phone of every man named Muhammad in the world but were going to draw the line at the phone of an affirmed terrorist and murderer?

    1. Ah, the old “do dead terrorists deserve any privacy” argument.
      The issue isn’t the dead terrorists phone but the precedent for everyone else’s phone.
      Once the camel’s nose is allowed under the tent, in short order you will be up to your eyeballs in camel shit.

  31. Does Anybody Believe the FBI Isn’t Out to Defeat Encryption?

    Does anyone believe the NSA hasn’t already beaten encryption?

    1. Ding! Ding! Ding!

      We have a winner!

      You beat me to it.

      The only way this story makes a lick of sense is for the FBI to be blowing smoke up our asses with Civil Liberty Theater.

      Otherwise, if they really wanted help from Apple, why back them into a corner by trying to *publicly* force them to make their own system insecure? Apple has to fight that. And once the bad guys know the OS is insecure, they’ll use other encryption means. The *last* thing the FBI would want to do is to publicly announce that Apple phones can be cracked.

      The best outcome for the FBI is to be able to crack the system while people *believe* the system is secure.

      I predict Apple miraculously triumphs court. Yay! The peasants celebrate Victory Over Big Brother!

      And the FBI gets to keep reading the Apple phones of everyone taken in by Civil Liberty Theater.

    2. Ha Ha! Didn’t recognize my own post!

      Has no one else gotten with the program yet?

  32. If only we could boycott the FBI.

  33. why do FedGov have to have unwarranted access directly to the phone? They have access through the wilreless carrier to all the calls to/from that phone. Tha’ts what NSA have been collecting for years. If they want to know who that phone has been inncontact with, that info should be avaliable through the wirelss carrier, easily accessed with a warrant. The phone does not store a recordiung of each call……

    FBI and FedGov are playing Apple and the rest of us for fools. Enough, already.

  34. The County government paid for, but did not install, software that would have enabled remotely unlocking the phone even after a user reset of the passcode. $4 per phone they were wasting.

    Assuming Apple still has the last iCloud backup from that phone on their servers, they should be able to turn over a copy for the NSA to work their code cracking wizardry upon.

    What about removing the storage chips from the iPhone then doing a raw dump of the contents? Replace them in the phone with a setup that can restore the raw dump as needed if it becomes corrupted while attempting to crack it.

    Another possibility, an iPhone emulator with the storage dump “plugged in”. That would make it possible to do a massively parallel brute force attack by running thousands of copies of the emulator, each with its own copy of the dump from the phone. Anything that wrecks the data or any imposed delays between attempts, just restart the emulation to get around it.

    Recall that GPU code cracker setup from a few years ago? On one test it could break any 12 character password in *five minutes*. GPUs have only become more powerful since then, and the task doesn’t have to be limited to a single box if the raw encrypted data can be dumped from the phone.

    With enough $$$$$ to spend on hardware, brute forcing long passwords could be done in hours, if more than a single copy is worked on in parallel. It just depends on how badly a company or government wants to decrypt something.

  35. Leo Laporte thinks the FBI is just swell in its efforts to defeat encryption.

  36. Anyone who believes, for an instant, that the Fibbies have your best interest in mind, and are NOT trying to find a way to crack ALL cell phones, is delusional in the extreme. Or, they are willing to give up their liberty for the illusion of safety. No one is safe, and allowing the government, any government, to peek into our cell phones, will not then make us safer. Neither will iPhone owners in foreign countries feel safe once the U.S. government can hack into their cell phones, and oh, BTW, our government won’t need a judge, a court order, or probable cause to hack into foreign-owned iPhones. This is a scam on the part of the U.S. government to prevent ANYONE from holding personal information that they cannot access — period.

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  39. Dream On?:

    “In your dream, the FBI is not a scam,
    In your dream, the constitution was not a scam,
    In your dream, the Supreme court is not a scam,
    In your dream, 9/11 was not a scam”

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  40. Boy is this guy paranoid. He’s also apparently not paying attention to what the FBI has said. But then, in the pages of Reason, the FBI is considered the bad guy. The FBI has clearly stated what it wants and a court has agreed.
    So is this article challenging the court’s opinion?

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