Typically when people are standing shoulder-to-shoulder outside of an Apple store, they are anxiously awaiting the release of a new device from the team in Cupertino.
But those in line at the San Francisco Apple store on Wednesday had a different agenda. About two dozen privacy advocates stood side-by-side at the company’s downtown San Francisco location in support of Apple’s resistance of government pressure to implement a software “backdoor” to aid an FBI investigation.
Background on Apple, FBI case
For those unaware of the recent case, a federal judge on Tuesday issued an order that Apple aid the FBI in an investigation of Syed Ryzwan Farook – one of the perpetrators in the Dec. 2, 2015 San Bernardino attack that left 14 people dead and 22 seriously injured. The order would require Apple to provide specialized software that would allow law enforcement officials to circumvent the security measures on Farook’s iPhone that are designed to erase its data after a specific number of unsuccessful login attempts.
The government is requesting new capabilities that would have Apple “remove security features and add new capabilities to the operating system, allowing a passcode to be input electronically” thus making it easier to unlock an iPhone with a computer. (It should be noted that Farook’s iPhone is a 5C model, meaning it lacks Touch ID and thus can’t be unlocked via fingerprints.)
Citing a proposed “unprecedented use of the All Writs Act of 1789 to justify an expansion of its authority”, Apple has resisted the government pressure to do so. Later on Tuesday, the company released additional details on the request in an open response letter, which can be found here: www.apple.com/customer-letter/
On the surface, it might seem like the obvious solution would be for Apple to simply comply with the FBI’s request and turn over the data requested. However, it’s not that simple and deeper understanding of what doing so would entail is required. (For a much more in-depth look at exactly what would need to be done to unlock Farook’s iPhone, please read this Wired article.)
As Apple points out, it would be impossible to guarantee that any security “backdoor” that is built would be used for accessing only Farook’s iPhone.
Apple states in its letter what could happen if the capabilities fell into the wrong hands. “Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices. In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks — from restaurants and banks to stores and homes…” And Apple says doing so could undermine its own progress in security measures to protect customers. (It’s important to note that the special version of iOS that would aid the FBI in this investigation would be loaded to this specific iPhone and would not be included in public versions of iOS. Meaning your next iOS update would not feature weakened security.)
Apple also states that the company has aided the investigation up to this point by providing the data in its possession and by complying with subpoenas and search warrants. Apple engineers have also provided the FBI with its best ideas on many investigative options.
However, the company has drawn the line at creating the backdoor to the iPhone, stating “Compromising the security of our personal information can ultimately put our personal safety at risk.”
Setting a precedent
In complex cases like these, there is no right or wrong answer. And while the past is important, the future also must be considered.
If Apple were to comply with the FBI’s request, it certainly could set a precedent that leads to additional countries in which the company does business or other types of organizations following suit and making similar demands. The FBI’s request could become a slippery slope that leads to weakened security for all among other unforeseen consequences.
And as Apple has stated, it seems impossible to ensure that “backdoor” code to the iPhone would remain in the right hands. As we have seen all too often, security breaches are not uncommon both in private and public organizations.
However, when lives are potentially at stake, shouldn’t exhausting all possible options in cases of this magnitude also be considered?
Of course, there is obviously no correct answer to this question.
In this case, it appears that much of the public has fallen into one of two camps: Those who think Apple should comply with the request and those who fear the security repercussions and precedent. And with many moving parts and variables, it’s understandable to follow a natural inclination to take one side or the other.
But in situations such as this, the best tool when making a decision is to stay informed. We encourage our readers to follow this story closely and consider all of the case’s facts when forming opinions.
As a tech company, we understand the importance of security of your private data, but we also understand that the safety of our citizens should be at the forefront of our collective efforts.
UPDATE 02/19: Apple reportedly getting more time to fight order
UPDATE 02/22: Apple releases security Q&A to customers