We all remember December 2, 2015. The day of the San Bernardino terrorist attacks. On that day 14 people were killed and 22 more were seriously injured. Among the items seized by the FBI, was an iPhone 5C belonging to one of the attackers, Syed Rizwan Farook. On February 16, a magistrate judge in Riverside, California signed a court order compelling Apple to disable the lock out mechanism so the FBI could brute force Farook’s password (basically trying as many passwords as possible until it’s found). Alternatively, the FBI could have simply used the iCloud backup (which Apple generally complies with), however, Farook’s iCloud password was changed by the FBI. Because the iCloud password was changed, it was impossible for Apple to actually get into the iCloud backups, hence the need for FBI to get inside of the phone. What the FBI wants Apple to do specifically is to create a custom version of iOS (dubbed GovtOS) that circumvents many of the usual security and encryption measures put in place. The FBI has stated that it is only meant to be used this one time on this one phone.
On the same day the court order was issued, Apple CEO Tim Cook, wrote an impassioned customer letter pushing back against what he perceives as government overreach. The federal government is trying to use the All Writs Act of 1789 (which is part of the Judiciary Act of 1789) as justification for Apple’s compliance. Many tech companies, including large, high profile companies such as Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon, have come out in support of Apple. However, a poll conducted by Pew Research shows that a little over half of Americans polled are on the FBI’s side. Many notable tech blog sites such as The Verge and Ars Technica have also sided with Apple. Likewise, many people who favor civil liberties such as libertarians have sided with Apple. Certainly, the June 2013 disclosures of secret NSA programs by Edward Snowden has many on edge when it comes to government and privacy. So why is Apple resisting working with the FBI? Don’t they want to stop more terrorism? There are valid arguments on both sides of this discussion and I’ll briefly talk about both sides and let you come to your own conclusions. Here we go:
Argument 1: Apple SHOULD NOT help the FBI
Tim Cook argues in his customer letter that creating a custom version of iOS would essentially create a backdoor into the iPhone. Although the FBI said that this custom iOS would only be used in this one case, it could possibly set a precedent that would compel Apple to create custom firmware (or use the same GovtOS that the FBI wants) for other government entities (foreign and domestic). If the GovtOS somehow got into less than savory hands, that would put almost every single iPhone at risk for compromise. Foreign intelligence services could use it to compromise the iPhone of anyone in their country. Up until this point, the iPhone has been one of the most rock solid mobile platforms in terms of security but this backdoor potentially risks the security of every iPhone owner. In the customer letter, Tim Cook says:
“The implications of the government’s demands are chilling. If the government can use the All Writs Act to make it easier to unlock your iPhone, it would have the power to reach into anyone’s device to capture their data. The government could extend this breach of privacy and demand that Apple build surveillance software to intercept your messages, access your health records or financial data, track your location, or even access your phone’s microphone or camera without your knowledge.”
Encryption is a foundational aspect to cybersecurity and protects your data from unwanted intrusion. Eroding that foundation puts millions of people at risk.
Argument 2: Apple SHOULD help the FBI
The FBI Director, James Comey, put out a statement in which he outlined the intentions of the FBI regarding iPhone backdoor:
The relief we seek is limited and its value increasingly obsolete because the technology continues to evolve. We simply want the chance, with a search warrant, to try to guess the terrorist’s passcode without the phone essentially self-destructing and without it taking a decade to guess correctly. That’s it. We don’t want to break anyone’s encryption or set a master key loose on the land
The FBI maintains that it’s request is very straightforward and the quote from Comey above sounds very benign. Terrorism has been at the forefront of United States foreign policy since the devastating attack in September 11, 2001 which killed approximately 3,000 people. Smaller terrorist attacks such as Fort Hood shooting in 2009, the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, the attack at a Tennessee Marine Corps recruiting center in April 2015, and the recent Paris terrorist attacks in November 2015 have only increased the need for the government to use whatever means to protect its people. The rise of extremist Islamic groups such as ISIS, al-Qaeda, and the civil war in Syria have made people afraid. People want the government to keep them safe as that is one of the primary roles of a government. Apple would be assisting with an investigation that could potentially unveil new plots against the United States. Imagine if Farook’s iPhone contained phone numbers, texts, and emails to an ISIS handler. We want the government to protect us, yet if Apple does not comply, it would hinder the FBI’s ability to prevent future terrorist attacks. If another attack happens, people will be looking angrily at the federal government wondering why they didn’t stop it. The FBI will point to cases like this, in which a private company is unwilling to cooperate with the FBI, and say they have been handicapped. How can the federal government keep us safe if they’re constantly prohibited from accessing a criminal’s electronic device?
Why this matters to you
As the aforementioned poll suggests, many Americans side with the FBI in calling for Apple to be complicit with the court order to create a custom OS for the FBI. The NSA disclosures by Edward Snowden have brought computer privacy, security, and the role of government into the forefront. Unfortunately, this still brings up tough questions that have to be answered: At what point does the pursuit of privacy hinder our ability to be safe? Conversely, at what point does the pursuit of security hinder our civil liberties and privacy? Is it possible to strike just the right balance between the two? Are they mutually exclusive? Civil liberties advocates will argue that privacy is the right of every person and is fundamental to a free society. Security advocates will argue that you can’t maintain absolute privacy while keeping people safe. Tools such as the Tor browser and messaging apps like WhatsApp employ encryption for anonymity and confidentiality. Law abiding people can use these tools to protect themselves from eavesdropping. It is advised to use a virtual private network (VPN) while using an open Wi-Fi network. A VPN protects your data from eavesdropping while on an unprotected network (banking, emails, etc…). Unfortunately, less than noble people can (and do) also use those same tools to plot terrorists attacks. In fact, the terrorists attacks in Paris were coordinated using encrypted apps such as WhatsApp and Telegram. The Tor browser can connect a savvy tech person to the “Dark Web”, basically websites that aren’t indexed by search engines like Google. Many of these websites host very objectionable material such as child pornography and can facilitate illegal weapon/drug sales, identity theft, and even hired assassinations.
Whatever your position is on civil liberties, it is important the conversation is started by Americans. We have a Constitution that specifically outlines what the federal government can and cannot do and we expect a government to abide by those restrictions. We are only a free country when Americans are able to conduct their affairs from the prying eyes of the government. However, we also have an expectation that our government keeps us safe. We expect the government to do what is necessary and legal to stop those who would do us harm. I’ll end this blog post with a quote from the FBI Director’s statement:
Although this case is about the innocents attacked in San Bernardino, it does highlight that we have awesome new technology that creates a serious tension between two values we all treasure—privacy and safety. That tension should not be resolved by corporations that sell stuff for a living. It also should not be resolved by the FBI, which investigates for a living. It should be resolved by the American people deciding how we want to govern ourselves in a world we have never seen before. We shouldn’t drift to a place—or be pushed to a place by the loudest voices—because finding the right place, the right balance, will matter to every American for a very long time.