Apple versus the FBI: A question of Security?

There are certain buzzwords within modern American society that carry a significant amount of emotional weight. These, if applied deftly, will spark passionate debates  appearingboth in the professional media and on your personal social media feeds. The discussion regarding the  dispute between Apple and the FBI  concerning the iPhone of Syed Farook, one of the San Bernardino shooters, has touched upon several of the aforementioned buzzwords, namely terrorism, security, privacy, constitutional rights, and gun control. Those weighing in on the issue include not only significant political players including FBI director James Comey and various US congressmen and women, but also heads of other notable tech companies including Google and Microsoft. Future presidential hopefuls, both Democratic and Republican, are using this as yet another platform from which to advocate their views. On the one hand, the FBI argues that for security reasons, Apple must help the investigation by granting access to Farrok’s phone. On the other, Apple argues that they must protect the privacy of their customers, and that unlocking the phone would inevitably lead to larger issues. Why exactly is this conflict of interests receiving so much attention?

Image courtesy of iphonedigital, 2016. Public Domain.

Image courtesy of iphonedigital, 2016. Public Domain.

The iPhone in question belongs to a man who was part of a duo who caused what Fortune 500 claims is the deadliest terror attack on US soil since 9/11, a comparison which itself triggers a powerful emotional response. On 2 December 2015, Syeed Farook (the phone owner) and Tashfeen Malik killed 14 people and wounded 21 others in a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. Malik has since been linked by US officials to ISIS through an apparent pledge of allegiance to the terrorist organisation’s leaders on Facebook. Notably, two of the guns used to carry out the shooting were obtained entirely legally. This has led some to comment that this debate between the FBI and Apple distracts from the real issue, the ineffectiveness of US gun control. Journalist James Allworth, for example, somewhat crassly reminds that it was not the heavily debated iPhone that caused this loss of life, but rather the weapons that were so easily obtained.

In order to further the investigation, the FBI claims to need access to information within Farook’s 4-digit password protected  iPhone. In the past, Apple has helped extract information from its products for criminal investigations. However, as the company clearly states in a letter published on its website, it never actually helped decrypt them. As of 2014, Apple is no longer capable of performing the same kind of information extracting techniques. It, along with Google, can no longer access encrypted devices, a decision made to protect their customers’ privacy.

Thus, the court order issued 16 February asks for Apple to alter the phone’s System Information File in order to accomplish the following tasks: to allow for a multitude of password guesses without the phone erasing its data, to allow for an automated password guessing process to be used so that a computer could rapidly test all numerical combinations, and to allow for this to be done without ‘unnecessary delay.’ The FBI has stipulated that they would permit Apple to alter this software for this one specific phone at their HQ, on their terms, but Apple has officially refused as of 25 February by asking for the US judicial system to overturn the earlier ruling.

Apple has denounced the FBI’s requests as creating a ‘back door’, which is not only a violation of its customer’s privacy, but also dangerous. The current head of the software company, Tim Cook, stated that ‘circumventing security software…risks security of all its customers’ ,  He also commented  on the fact that, should the FBI win their case, a new precedent with major implications would be set for the future which would  speak  volumes on the US government’s attitude towards its citizens right to privacy. Numerous heads of other prominent technologically oriented companies including Microsoft and Facebook have come out in support of Apple’s cause. Jonathan Godfrey, vice-president of the App Association (a group which represents the interests of such companies), voiced concern that the FBI’s demands ‘would substantially undermine our best means of keeping critical data out of the hands of criminals and bad actors.’

Additionally, Apple argues that, based on a court case from 1999, code is considered speech and, therefore, this court order infringes upon its first amendment rights.

Among many important others, the White House has issued a statement fully in support of the FBI. The Bureau also argues security reasons for helping to unlock the phone. So whilst tech companies believe creating this ‘back door’ option will only inevitably end up in the hands of malignant hackers (thereby allowing them to find their ways into smartphones and other encrypted technologies), the US government believes that withholding this particular phone’s information contributes to a greater security risk,  by potentially preventing valuable information about terrorist organizations and activities from being brought to light

The argument between these powerhouses—the US government and the tech industry—has led to the consideration of several important questions.  Some have painted the debate between these two as heavily driven by image. The Department of Justice, for example, commented that Apple was merely using this as part of a larger marketing scheme to promote its dedication to its customer’s privacy. However, Fortune 500’s  Phillip Elmer-DeWitt suggested that the FBI was also using this as an image building technique, drawing connections between tactics used by the organization’s founder and the company’s current actions and pointing out that conveniently, a week before, the FBI was lobbying congress for more funding regarding tackling encryption.

 These discussions plus the aforementioned use of this issue as a springboard to talk about issues such as gun control are valid, relevant, and important.  However, the actual big debate at hand lies beyond the results of the current court battle. At the end of the day, the issue of security is a major player in this debate. Whether it is a mask for ulterior motives by either or both of these organizations, this security aspect is why this major clash is receiving so much attention. The greater usage of technology and increased platforms for global communication do create new areas for discussion of rights. What matters is that questions regarding security and privacy are being raised and desperately need to be. As technology advances, so must laws regulating what governments are and are not allowed to do. Enormous queries such as how much privacy we must be willing to sacrifice for the sake of security must be explored. And, while there is certainly not one magical fix all answer, the very fact that the question is being discussed represents a step towards reform. Bill Gates himself has gone to the media to blatantly call for such a ‘terror data debate’ to occur. Such an issue is even big enough to unite democrats and republicans, evidenced by senators Michael McCaul and Mark Warner who are calling for a commission to find a compromise between businesses such as these and law enforcement.

So, whatever is eventually decided, be it on the the next set court date or years down the line, the fact of the matter is that ultimately: both reexaminations of rights regarding security and privacy are called for in light of our ever advancing technological global society.