Apple’s battle with the FBI over breaking into the iPhone owned by one of the San Bernardino shooters is about much more than just trying to learn more about what predicated the act of terrorism and obtain other information that’s pertinent to the attack. Apple has basically found itself between a rock and a hard place.
Either it helps the Feds back the iPhone and damages its reputation for breach of privacy, or it doesn’t help and damages its reputation by refusing to help law enforcement in such a deadly and shocking crime. I certainly wouldn’t want to be in Tim Cook’s shoes right now, but he’s made it clear that he sides with privacy. Indeed, with such a high level of popularity Apple enjoys in the smartphone industry comes problems like this that smaller vendors are far less likely to have to deal with because the odds that a cr
But the inherent problem with privacy is that even criminals’ information is kept private, so it all boils down to which issue is more important to the American people.
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Apple told to break down iPhone defenses
A judge ordered Apple to write software that basically lowers the defenses of the shooter’s iPhone. This would make it possible for FBI hackers to overwhelm the device with potential passwords until they get the right one and are able to unlock the device. According to The Irish Times, federal agents want the software to disable the auto-erase capability, which automatically wipes out the data that’s on the iPhone after ten wrong password entry attempts.
They also want the software to disable the automatic delay mechanism which puts a limit on how quickly passwords can be entered. And finally, they want it to be easier to enter possibly passwords electronically, which would enable federal hackers to test an endless string of possibilities very quickly.
Why Apple is against it
The immediate reaction here is that if the FBI had software like this, agents could theoretically use it on every iPhone they want to hack. However, in this case, Apple has been told to include a 12-digit identifier to make the software only work on the iPhone owned by the San Bernardino shooter. But while this may sound like a very small request to unlock a single iPhone, there are some problems with it.
Apple is adamantly against the request because the software could indeed be used to hack other iPhones by simply changing the 12-digit identifier code to the correct one for a particular phone. In the same vein, the software’s mere existence would mean that other law enforcement agencies could seek a court order to use it for their cases, which could open up the door for abuse and spying on average American citizens (i.e., the National Security Agency).
Tech companies in general have stood together in support of privacy since the incident with Edward Snowden and the NSA a few years ago. Google and WhatsApp management recently spoke up in support of Apple’s decision not to comply with the court order—or at least to hold out as long as possible in the fight against the agency.
The flip side
On the other side of the coin, however, we have the issue of honest surveillance of criminals. Law enforcement officials and some lawmakers have had harsh words for Apple, like Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, who said recently: “Apple chose to protect a dead ISIS terrorist’s privacy over the security of the American people… Apple is becoming the company of choice for drug dealers and sexual predators of all sorts” (via Fortune).
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance said the iPhone maker shouldn’t be allowed to decide who is able to access important evidence such as information that’s available on a phone, while Shane Harris of the Daily Beast suggested that the only reason the company hasn’t complied with the court order is because it is worried about tarnishing its brand.
And then there are people who say that what Apple isn’t being asked to do is create a backdoor for its products, and indeed writing software to hack a phone isn’t exactly the same thing. However, it still creates a vulnerability that can be exploited, not only by law enforcement but also by hackers in general.
The clock is ticking on the Cupertino, Calif.-based tech giant now as it has only a few business days left to officially respond to the court order. The company will have to explain why it’s “unreasonably burdensome” to create the software demanded by the FBI but will also likely contest the order and the grounds that were used in it, which can be traced all the way back to a law written in the 18th century. Cook has called for the use of this law in this particular way to be put up for debate in Congress rather than ruled on in the courts.