If Apple must help the government unlock the phone of one of the San Bernardino killers, the “back door” will undermine the privacy of iPhone users around the globe.
If the FBI can’t see what’s on Syed Farook’s phone, any other terrorists involved in the massacre of 14 people might go undetected.
We don’t take either Apple or the FBI at their word. This case is not that clear-cut.
That’s why this is the right time for the courts to call in experts and advocates and try to come up with a ruling that balances privacy and security in the age of digital communication and terrorism.
Granted, there may not be a technological solution that will satisfy all sides, but it’s well worth the effort. And if the courts fail, Congress can step in and try to craft legislation.
Where you come down on this precedent-setting case depends partly on whom you trust less – the government or corporate America.
Deservedly, the federal government lost a lot of credibility with the National Security Agency’s sweeping domestic surveillance. We and many privacy advocates have been critical of the bulk collection of phone records without individual warrants. This case is different, however, because the FBI did obtain a court order on Tuesday from a federal magistrate judge.
By the same token, major corporations such as Apple tend to brag about protecting privacy when it suits them, but share customers’ data when it’s in their financial interest. Apple has every right to fight the court order, but it’s hardly the white knight of Silicon Valley.
Generally, we give more weight to Americans’ privacy, but in the real world it gets complicated. In this case, key assertions are in dispute.
The White House says the FBI is asking Apple to defeat security features only on Farook’s iPhone 5C, not every phone. The judge’s order says the software should include a “unique identifier” so it can’t be used on other phones. It’s not even clear, however, whether there’s any usable information on the county-owned phone, since Farook didn’t bother to destroy it before he and his wife were killed in a shootout with authorities.
Apple CEO Tim Cook warns customers that the software the FBI wants would give the government “the power to reach into anyone’s device to capture their data.” And if it got into the wrong hands, he says, it could be a bonanza for hackers and cybercriminals. “The U.S. government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create,” he said in a statement. Twitter and Facebook backed him Thursday.
This faceoff among tech companies, law enforcement agencies and some lawmakers, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, has been building up for some time. Companies are enhancing encryption and other security features on digital devices as we keep putting more personal and financial information on them.
FBI Director James Comey told Congress last week that law enforcement is increasingly having trouble accessing devices even if a judge rules there’s enough probable cause to issue a warrant. It’s no accident that the FBI chose the Dec. 2 bloodbath in San Bernardino, the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11, to make its stand.
Apple has encrypted iPhones since 2014. With the newest operating system, the phones cannot be accessed by Apple and can be set up so that all data is wiped after too many wrong tries to enter the user’s passcode. Security is part of Apple’s business model; it is trying to get customers to use Apple Pay, which stores credit and debit card information.
So while Cook may be right to sound the alarm, we should remember he’s looking out for his company’s bottom line as well as our privacy.