February 17, 2016

FBI vs iPhone Encryption: Should Apple’s Tim Cook Yield?

Image from Engadget.

By Megan G. 

This past Tuesday, District Court Judge Sheri Pym has ordered Apple to help the Obama administration hack into the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino, CA terrorists. The judge’s full statement can be read on Gizmodo, but the gist of it reads that Apple needs to bypass encryption and successfully break into the iPhone to access any important information for law enforcement.

Apple’s Tim Cook will not allow it. The CEO has written an open letter to Apple customers and begins the passionate address with “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.” Talk about buzzwords.

Let’s take a look at both sides of the argument.

The FBI: A Case for Public Safety

The FBI’s call for breaking iPhone encryption stems from the 2015 terrorist attacks in San Bernardino, CA conducted by married couple Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik. Both were killed in the police shootout four hours after the attack and, almost three months later, the FBI still cannot access Farook’s county-owned work iPhone because they don’t his passcode.

Apple has provided available data as well as Apple engineers to the FBI, for this legal case, but have not bended on the encryption issue. While law enforcement could attempt to guess the passcode, too many failed attempts results in the erasing of iPhone data—a critical issue for the police investigation. If Apple helped the FBI bypass the encryption, law enforcement could potentially gain access to valuable information, such as Farook’s possible dangerous contacts and communications.

Tim Cook’s Customer Letter certainly comes off more self-righteous than justified when you consider the possible danger the tech company could prevent. However, an exception made for this one legal case could spell dangerous repercussions for all iPhone users if the company actually subverts their hardware.   

Apple & Tim Cook: The Case for Data Security

At the risk of sounding clichéd, we need to remember that the digital age is a simultaneously amazing and terrifying time to live in. An obnoxious amount of information is always at your fingertips, especially if you are attached to your smartphone. You can carry the internet wherever you go!

Now, we constant web-users not only indulge in this plethora of information, we also add to it on public and personal levels. Our email, social media profiles, texts, blogs, passwords, all that jazz--we are the reason that the Internet keeps growing with our reliance on digitized platforms. However, as much as humans love the accessible nature of the internet, we also really really like our privacy. What a digi-debacle.

However, Tim Cook argues that the FBI doesn’t just want Apple to assist with breaking encryption, but is even asking Apple to go further and build a backdoor for to the iPhone. He explains that this would require Apple to create an entirely new iOS version that ignores important security features, like the passcode.  

In order to protect customer personal data, Cook urges his readers to understand the need for encryption. The iPhone passcode protects your data from outside users: criminals, hackers, your nosy friends and family, etc. Compromising even one phone—in this case, Farook’s iPhone—could risk the personal privacy and safety of all other iPhone users if the developed backdoor software falls into the wrong hands.

Tim Cook illustrates his fears with an intense yet justified slippery slope at the end of the letter:

“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 a 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.”

With that argument, which plays into similar fears sparked by the USA PATRIOT Act,  it makes sense that many people would just let Farook’s unlocked phone lie. 

Could the Dark Knight surveillance system be a real part of our future?

Whatcha Gonna Do When They Bypass You?

Whether or not Apple builds this software might not matter, because the FBI plans to spend $38.3 million this year on countering the threat of “Going Dark,” i.e. encryption, according to ZD Net. This budget will go towards the development of tools for electronic device analysis, cryptanalytic capability, and forensic tools. Obviously, the FBI’s intentions are to track dangerous individuals and organizations such as criminals and terrorists. As this ability verges on the activities of certain infamous “cyber activist” groups like Anonymous, it will be interesting to see how the public responds.

What do you think? Do you side more with the FBI or Apple’s concerns? Let the Tek Team know your thoughts about this pressing tech issue in the comment section! 

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