Rapid Response: Why Apple shouldn't give in to the FBI

At stake here is more than the collection of information from one terrorist’s secure, government-issued mobile phone

What Happened: Earlier this week, the FBI petitioned the court to force Apple to create a new version of the iPhone operating system (iOS) which would defeat certain security features on the phone used by Syed Farook, one of the terrorists who killed 14 people and wounded 22 others in San Bernardino last year.

The next day, Apple CEO Tim Cook issued a statement saying, in part, “The FBI wants us to make a new version of the iPhone operating system, circumventing several important security features, and install it on an iPhone recovered during the investigation.”

Put succinctly, the FBI wants Apple to disable the auto-erase function in the operating system (which erases the device completely if too many incorrect passwords are attempted) and remove the time delay between the input of password attempts (which would ostensibly speed up the brute-force method of attempting to unlock the phone). The FBI also wants the company to create a new way for the agency to submit passcodes either via a wireless (Bluetooth/WiFi) connection or a physical port on the device.

In that third element, the FBI is asking Apple “to add a vulnerability to its software and devices, not just ‘remove’ a roadblock,” according to TechCrunch.

“In the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession,” Cook said in his statement.

Why it’s Significant: Could Apple successfully create such technology? Sure, in less than a day. Should they? No, and here’s why. 

At stake here is more than the collection of information from one terrorist’s secure, government-issued mobile phone. At issue is the matter of personal privacy in the digital space, private encryption, and the government’s ability to interfere with those things.

Benjamin Franklin famously wrote, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

That was true in 1755 and it remains true today.

The Associated Press said in its report, “The dispute places Apple, one of the world’s most respected companies, on the side of protecting the digital privacy of an accused Islamic terrorist.”

Well, no. Apple is protecting its product for the hundreds of millions who possess Apple iOS devices, and it is protecting its own corporate interests. The company’s market position could be jeopardized by taking away one of the elements to its product that is most appealing to consumers (privacy and encryption) and thereby put the shareholders in financial jeopardy.

As CEO, it is Cook’s responsibility to resist that.

Besides, the company has turned over to the FBI all of the information it has available, including (one would assume) data from an iCloud backup done on October 19th of 2015.

Cook said in his statement, “We have great respect for the professionals at the FBI, and we believe their intentions are good. Up to this point, we have done everything that is both within our power and within the law to help them. But now the U.S. government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create. They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone.”

The courts can compel a private enterprise to hand over existing information (which Apple has done) but cannot compel that private enterprise to create something entirely new that damages itself. 

Top Takeaways: The fact is that the probability that a terrorist would keep sensitive information about his plot/plans on his government-issued mobile phone is pretty preposterous. In the unlikely event that there is information relevant to the investigation on that device, the possibility exists that it resides elsewhere as well, such as with mobile carrier network records, or another person’s phone who spoke or exchanged messages with Farook. Consequently, the FBI should:

  1. Vigorously pursue all of the other avenues of investigation.
  2. Work to develop better decryption capabilities for future investigations.
  3. Withdraw its petition to the court to force a private company to damage its products.

What’s Next: The FBI says it is simply asking for a ‘one-off’ version of iOS that would be discarded upon completion of the investigation, but that’s not a realistic expectation of the future — one cannot put the toothpaste back in the tube.

Deputy Executive Director and General Counsel of the Electronic Frontier Foundation Kurt Opsahl said that the FBI is asking Apple “to create a master key so that it can open a single phone. And once that master key is created, we’re certain that our government will ask for it again and again, for other phones, and turn this power against any software or device that has the audacity to offer strong security.”

The matter will now be taken to court — and the court of public opinion — and will play out slowly over the course of several months. The outcome there will have long-term implications for all concerned, no matter which side “wins.”

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