Written by Lauren Tai
On February 16, 2016, in his letter to customers, Apple CEO Tim Cook brought to light the long-running issue of individual privacy in the face of national security, forcing people to take a stance on the extent to which the former should be compromised by the latter. While the government inherently assumes the position as the good guys in most debates, in its firm rejection to the FBI, Apple sends a convincing message that the business and social implications need to be examined more closely before the government can claim that what it demands is right.
The issue escalated and went public when the FBI presented Apple with a court order under the All Writs Act, mandating that Apple create a new version of software that could bypass security features on its current iOS 9. The software requested by the FBI would essentially be a version of iOS 9 to be installed without the 10-guess password limit,
which currently runs the risk of wiping the phone completely if guesses are maxed out.
This request was sent to access the locked iPhone that belonged to the terrorist behind the San Bernardino attack; it was a national security lead being pursued by FBI. However, the nature of the software creates a risk should the program get into the wrong hands and as Cook asserts, the repercussions and implications need to be carefully considered.
Though the FBI has maintained that the new code would be strictly tailored to this one phone for this one time use, this request could set precedent: the FBI could gain access to other iPhones in the future by simply demanding that Apple write new custom code. In addition, though the FBI has maintained that the code would be eradicated after unlocking the San Bernardino phone, simply creating the code runs the risk of access by hackers or criminals who could modify the code and compromise security for all. Cook raises valid points in his letter. He emphasizes the need for encryption, stating that by compromising the security of our personal information, we ultimately put our personal safety at risk.
Though this case has been postponed since March 21st, it comes with huge implications for our personal security. Despite Apple’s objection to the FBI’s request, the government has already found a third-party to open the iPhone, possibly cutting short the FBI’s ongoing encryption debate.
A majority of Americans, 62% according to Pew Research Center, agree that it is important for the federal government to investigate possible terrorist threats, even if it intrudes on personal privacy. Nevertheless, the danger from hackers who can get ahold of our data by accessing it without our knowledge or permission is paramount.
Think about the information that is contained on our smart devices: photos, calendar, contacts, and even more sensitive data such as financial information, health reports, saved passwords, and locations – and for some, the locations of their loved ones. We all have a right to privacy, especially on our mobile devices – an extremely intimate part of our lives. Since encryption is the only means we have of protecting our personal data, it is a shield that should never be jeopardized. Doing so would not only infringe upon our right to privacy but also leave us vulnerable.
As citizens we already compromise personal information in the face of national security, most visibly through the government’s phone surveillance program, exposed two and half years ago by former CIA employee Edward Snowden. However, just late last year, the NSA announced that it will scale-back government spying capabilities, end wide-scale tapping into Americans’ phone records, and opt for a more targeted surveillance approach.
This move was a large win for privacy advocates and technology companies, as the surveillance program did not directly advance counter terrorism. Further, its cut-back rebalanced privacy to where it belongs, in the hands of Americans. However, as evidenced in the Apple case, the government has other less visible means of obtaining private information -primarily by compelling companies to hand over information.