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Apple Opposes Court-Mandated Encryption Backdoor For Law Enforcement
The District Court and FBI say it's about one phone, Apple argues it would have sweeping implications for all iPhone owners.
The FBI has been trying unsuccessfully to access Syed Farook’s iPhone. Farook and his wife killed 14 people in December in San Bernardino, California, in an apparent terrorist shooting.
Yesterday, a federal magistrate ordered Apple to unlock the phone (see below). While at a glance, that seems reasonable and appropriate, it’s not as simple as that. This is the infamous “backdoor” that Apple, Google and other US tech companies have opposed.
The use of encryption has become more widespread since the Snowden-NSA domestic spying revelations. Tech companies have turned to encryption and other enhanced security measures to protect users from surveillance and restore confidence that they are not merely instruments of US government spying.
The case perfectly embodies the “freedom versus security” debate. It’s also the kind of case that could turn into a US Supreme Court decision.
Judge Sheri Pym, of the District Court in Central California, ordered Apple to create a method or mechanism that would enable the FBI to access to the phone without the risk of wiping the data on it. Too many failed password attempts will erase the phone.
Pym’s order focuses on this isolated instance. However, Apple CEO Tim Cook says complying would create a dangerous precedent with implications far beyond the immediate case.
Cook announced the company’s refusal to comply this morning. He argued this would effectively require the creation of a new way into the operating system and that complying would create later opportunities to hack the iPhone by criminals and other governments:
The government is asking Apple to hack our own users and undermine decades of security advancements that protect our customers — including tens of millions of American citizens — from sophisticated hackers and cybercriminals. The same engineers who built strong encryption into the iPhone to protect our users would, ironically, be ordered to weaken those protections and make our users less safe…
The government would have us remove security features and add new capabilities to the operating system, allowing a passcode to be input electronically. This would make it easier to unlock an iPhone by “brute force,” trying thousands or millions of combinations with the speed of a modern computer.
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 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.
Apple has decided to fight the judge’s order. The EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) supports Apple’s position.
It’s more than possible that the matter will wind up before the US Supreme Court. It’s also the case, based on past rulings and public positions, that recently deceased Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia would have supported the FBI’s position in this matter. His death could thus be consequential for the tech industry, as well.
The FBI had a valid warrant to search the phone. It says, however, that it cannot execute that warrant without Apple’s help.
The FBI argues that this is about a single phone and a single criminal case. Apple says, however, that creating a “master key” or software backdoor to bypass the iPhone’s security features would open a Pandora’s box that could potentially impact millions of people across the globe.