Apple is currently battling a historical privacy and security battle with the Department of Justice and the FBI. This is historical because it is the first time an important question has ever been raised in our society in an effort to balance between personal liberty and public safety. Whichever decision this issue will come down to will send a long lasting shock-waves into the future, and will be the backbone to the future policy and technological decisions in regards to digital policy.
On 11th December, 2015, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik (his wife) collaborated and had 14 people killed at a holiday party in San Bernardino California. The incident also caused 22 serious injuries, including a police officer. This was one of the bloodiest terrorist attack since the 9/11. Before the attack, the couple destroyed their communication devices, including phones and hard drives, except Farook’s phone which was dropped in a relative’s car.
On 16th February, 2016, a California federal Judge issued an order demanding that Apple help the FBI access the data in the criminal’s phone, an iPhone 5C with an iOS9 software build. The FBI requested that Apple disable the protections built inside the phone that erase or locks up the phone when a wrong password is used too many times. This way, Apple can try every possible passwords to allow them gain entry to the phone, through brute force hacking.
Apple claims to have given FBI lots of information. The FBI claims that the only help Apple has given them is to gain access to the information in Farook’s iCloud account from the servers, leaving out the most critical data they need; the data in the phone drive itself. The FBI thinks the physical data on the iPhone is very critical because it has information dating back to six months and this information was backed up in the iCloud. This data is associated with crime, and getting their hands into this data will give information that will help secure citizens from harm by terrorists in the future.
Another concern is that a tool that can be used to disable a disk wipe on iPhones has never been built. Apple may need to develop this tool to assist the FBI get entry to the phone data. However, creating such a tool will not auger well with the public given the statements given by Tim Cook, Apple CEO, regarding user and data privacy since the company released iOS8 back in 2014.
Is it about one iPhone?
No, it is not just about one iPhone. In fact, after the success of the first case, the FBI will always be tempted to ask for help with other iPhones just like they did with Farook’s iPhone. Following the court rulings, the FBI knows that Apple can build this “backdoor” tool privately in their labs using a special code, unlock Farook’s iPhone, and then destroy the tool without using it again. This will never happen because it is not the first time the FBI is asking for Apple to unlock iPhones. Remember the case of the man accused of being in possession of drugs?
In 2015 alone, Apple sold more than 200 million iPhones. Unlocking even quarter of these iPhones would cost millions of dollars to the buyers. This means that Apple wants to stay put and avoid anything to do with gaining access to user iPhones at all costs since, if such a tool is created, and someone steals it would be harmful and may bring the company down. Besides, creating the tool will automatically prompt the government to create a “legitimate” unlocking of iPhones under certain conditions. Once the tool is created, and the FBI and the federal government succeed in making it for legitimate uses to the law agencies, other nations will follow suit. There will no longer be privacy and security for personal users, which is a big issue for Apple.
The only way to find an amicable solution to FBI vs Apple issue is to have the stakeholders sit at a round table and do a serious consultation. This consultation should take into consideration the interest of both parties. It is true that Apple is significant to the economy, the citizen security is also important in the same measure. There must be no win situation in this case, since looking more on one side would either kill Apple or kill the citizens.