Apple and the FBI are currently involved in a dispute over whether the federal court should force Apple to create a tool that would allow the FBI to unlock an iPhone 5C that belonged to one of the San Bernardino attackers. The FBI argues that the family members of the victims deserve to know the contents of that phone. Apple argues this would lead to a ‘slippery-slope’ and they do not want to undermine the security features of their products.
Distrust towards the FBI increases!
The issue is much larger than accessing the contents of one iPhone 5c.
Successive action against Apple would go far beyond issues of privacy – it would set a precedent for other cases; whereby manufacturers will be expected to provide loop-holes on all electronic devices which hold user data across all industries (for example: motor-vehicles, televisions, personal-computers, cash machines, and passenger airliners).
This is where privacy and safety of the general population is at risk. A separate version of iOS may be created for the intention of law enforcement use, but it would actually provide a window of opportunity for others. They could use this access unlawfully to enter other devices – obtaining a seemingly endless amount of important information about us all; from mobile banking to geo-location.
The US is supposed to be ‘the land of the free’, it is imbedded within their culture. However, the FBI and other secret service agencies have a history of crossing the line when it comes to privacy and other rights. In 1993, the NSA tried to adapt an encryption device known as Clipper Chip. The proposal was never implemented because of public opinion. Furthermore, in 2013 the infamous Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA and the GCHQ had access to the user data in most smartphone devices. This generated a huge public out-roar. After this, Apple decided to develop new encryption methods to prevent its devices from being subject to surveillance. Additionally, the court order issued by the federal judge for the FBI is based on an old legislation called the All Writs Act of 1789. The use of the All Writs Act in such a case is unprecedented.
From a common-good-approach, Apple should not be compelled by those whose conflicting views have been tinted through personal involvement in such a horrific case. Apple shares the same values as its customers and should continue to protect the data stored on their devices – a stance not shared by other ‘tech giants’ such as Google and Facebook. Apple and the general public are bound by the pursuit of common values and goals.
The solution should not include Apple’s engineers being forced to create this dangerous tool and the public must continue to support Apple into not working with the FBI or giving into their demands. Previous actions of secret service agencies indicate that they are untrustworthy and dishonest leading to only 19% of Americans trusting the government. Therefore, secret service agencies like the FBI must become more transparent with the public.
Maybe then the general public can begin to trust the government and its secret service agencies?
Apple and FBI should just work it out!
Apple’s refusal to support the FBI in creation of this tool may seem valid based on the grounds of defense of civil liberties, but it compromises the ability to carry out a comprehensive criminal investigation which can potentially uncover contents related to national security. The locked iPhone can determine if there was a third shooter during the attack. The San Bernardino District County Attorney’s Office had cited two 911 calls reporting three perpetrators but all evidence collected so far had only indicated two. Just as creation of the tool puts public security at risk, it can be argued not allowing completion of a thorough criminal probe puts public security at risk with equal measure. A solution offering a balance between the two, therefore, is critical.
Even though the US government argues that it is a one-time use build, history tells us this it is not true and as Tim Cook mentions in his open letter, the technique can be repeated numerous times; and if this tool lands in the wrong hands, it can lead to large-scale hacking attacks, weakening public security. On the other hand, the FBI’s accusation of Apple prioritising their marketing business model and PR strategy above terrorism investigations cannot be discounted. If Apple complies with the court orders it would undermine the trust in the security of their products. It is a possibility that the other tech giants supporting Apple’s stance is out of the mutual coherent fear that compliance would have repercussions far beyond this legal case, and they too can face similar court orders in future. Weakened encryption can damage the credibility of their products and can hit the industry similar to the way it did following the events that unfolded in 2013. Therefore, the question now facing both the parties is how much compromise of public privacy is enough security? The FBI’s stance in this juxtaposition is quite clear and the FBI Director, James Comey, had admittedly told the press that encryption is currently hampering law enforcement at all levels.
From a Utilitarian Approach, further public discussions, as suggested by Tim Cook, should be considered. It must include a panel of representatives from all the stakeholders (including but not limited to; security agencies, the public, Apple and the law enforcement agency). The whole idea is to reach a mutually agreeable solution which will provide the FBI better support in recovering the contents from the phone but not at the cost of compromised public security. This can potentially include accepting John McAffe’s offer to decrypt the phone without the requirement of Apple having to create a backdoor. Also, Apple’s engineers can potentially hack the phone in-house. The FBI must, though, make sure Apple is not held accountable for destroying evidence if they fail.
Ken Kaneki, Myles Mawdsley, Kurien Mosele, Andrew Motteley