Apple and the FBI: A Controversy over Privacy

Photo by Katie Heald '18 | Apple has filed pleadings against a federal judge ruling that Apple must cooperate with the FBI to access phone data, citing privacy.

Photo by Katie Heald ’18 | Apple has filed pleadings against a federal judge ruling that Apple must cooperate with the FBI to access phone data, citing privacy.

Emily Kowalik ’18
Assistant Copy Editor 

Recently a controversy has developed between Apple and the U.S. Department of Justice. Investigators have attempted to access information on a locked Apple iPhone used by Syed Rizwan Farook, a terrorist involved in the massacre that killed 14 in San Bernardino, Calif., in December 2015.

Issues arose when the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) asked Apple to assist them in obtaining information from the iPhone, and Apple declined. A federal judge has now ordered that Apple help the FBI access this data, and Apple has filed pleadings contesting this order. This controversy has sparked a debate between those whose main concern is privacy and those who prioritize national security.

The crux of the argument between Apple and the FBI lies in the fact that the FBI wants Apple to create a way for them to disable the feature that causes the phone to erase its data after 10 failed password attempts so that investigators can continue to try to unlock the phone. Apple is opposed to creating software to disable this feature because they believe that, if they were to design methods that can deactivate security features, the privacy of millions of Apple phone users would be put at risk.

While the Justice Department insists that their request would concern only the iPhone Farook used, I agree with Apple when they counter that this measure is a slippery slope that could lead to an infringement of our right to privacy.

There is certainly no easy resolution to this matter. Without a doubt, the FBI has a compelling case presenting issues of national security – i.e., the possibility of uncovering information about this and possibly other terrorist plots. Many imply that, by not allowing the FBI to access criminals’ iPhones, Apple is unnecessarily putting American lives at risk.

I’d say that that is an unfair statement, firstly because there is no certainty that any useful information will be retrieved from the phone, and secondly because the judge’s ruling creates a precedent by compelling a private company to disable features that were designed to protect the privacy of private citizens.

Furthermore, it is naïve and unrealistic of the FBI to claim that, if they were successful in getting Apple to create a backdoor to the encryption of iPhones, it would only affect the phone involved in their investigation of the massacre in San Bernardino.

Other police forces and investigative bodies would undoubtedly also seek to gain access to criminals’ phones to retrieve data, meaning that this would likely not be an isolated situation. Also, it is probable that, if a measure to overcome the encryption protections on Apple phones were created, this software could fall into the hands of hackers and make Apple’s security features moot. Apple believes, and I think realistically so, that once a program enabling one to get past their security features is created, such programming would eventually become public.

A line must be drawn when it comes to privacy. For example, investigators cannot go as far as torturing people in order to gain information, no matter how vital that information may be. While that example certainly represents a more extreme situation than unlocking encryptions on phones, it demonstrates rationalizations used to place the concerns of greater national security over human rights.

Apple’s argument that they don’t want to have the technology to undo encryptions available is twofold. First, they market their phones partly on the claim that they are safe from hackers, and second it would be against citizens’ civil liberties if the government had the ability to retrieve data from their phones.

There have been precedents in the issue of collecting private citizens’ phone data. A bill created last June ended the controversial National Security Agency program that gathered phone data in bulk, and, in December, lawmakers created a way for companies to voluntarily share information concerning cyber threats. However, neither of these actions were as divisive as forcing a private company to defeat its own encryption would be.

Consequently, it appears that the FBI and Apple are facing the possibility of a court battle that could take years to resolve and which may create changes in laws regarding privacy. While it would make sense for Congress to step in and help act on this issue, that appears unlikely due to partisan fighting and the fact that it’s an election year.

I expect this issue, especially during the congressional hearing of Apple next week, will continue to stir up controversy.

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