The United States government has demanded that Apple take an unprecedented step which threatens the security of our customers. We oppose this order, which has implications far beyond the legal case at hand.
This moment calls for public discussion, and we want our customers and people around the country to understand what is at stake.”
-Tim Cook, Apple CEO
The tragedy in San Bernardino, California, on Dec. 2, of last year shocked many Americans. This event quickly became labeled as an “act of terror,” receiving national attention. Subsequent investigation has handled the event as a domestic attack. Consequently, the shooter’s property and belongings have understandably been searched, including his iPhone 5c.
On Tuesday, Feb. 16, Apple CEO Tim Cook posted an open letter online explaining Apple’s cooperation and current involvement with the FBI investigation. Cook states that Apple has been complying with all subpoenas and search warrants they are capable of servicing. Apple has even provided some of their own engineers to work exclusively with the FBI to advise them about the information they are capable of uncovering.
Apparently this compliance was not enough. The FBI has demanded a new iOS version written specifically for the shooter’s phone with certain security features disabled. This is essentially an iOS update with a backdoor built in. It does not provide a key or any way to bypass the system’s encryption, but would disable the delay between incorrect attempts. This would allow the FBI to guess as many codes as they can without the “iPhone is disabled” screen slowing them down. No known backdoor for iPhone exists at the moment, but this would come close enough.
Cook says the U.S. government has requested “something we consider too dangerous to create.” He warns that a backdoor will not be a one-time solution used to investigate the San Bernardino case. Creating a single backdoor will immediately weaken iPhones across the world.
Instead of asking for legislation, the FBI is applying the All Writs Act of 1789 to order this move. The letter warns that compliance with this demand will allow the FBI unhindered authority to demand any sort of software be built into any phone. This would give the U.S. government the ability to track encrypted iMessages (which is not as easy as text-snooping), health records, financial information and even use an iPhone’s camera and microphone without the knowledge or consent of the phone’s owner.
Cook closes firmly by saying that Apple opposes the order with “the deepest respect for American democracy and a love for our country” and that they consider the request to be “an overreach by the U.S. Government.” Cook says that he believes the FBI has good intentions but “this demand would undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect.”
The question Cook asks is not whether the shooter retains a right to privacy but whether citizens deserve to have their right to privacy universally revoked in the name of safety. Cook recognizes that if the software is created, a precedent will have been set that allows the government full access to contents of any smartphone (and any computer) without respect for the violated consent of the citizens. There is no guarantee that the exploit will not fall into the wrong hands. I believe Apple is making the correct decision to fight for their customer’s right to privacy and security. This is an issue that will define how we and our children will use technology for years to come and should not be taken or permitted lightly. This request by the FBI is just one step on a very slippery slope whose bottom goes below a blatant violation of the privacy and security of technology users everywhere.