Apple vs. FBI: Is national security worth our privacy?

The San Bernardino shooting(7) was the deadliest terrorist attack to occur in the US since the September 11 attacks. To aid with their investigation, the FBI required Apple to hack an iPhone recovered from the scene, doing so could potentially compromise the data security of its consumers. What decision should Apple make given that this is a matter of national security? Should Apple yield to the FBI’s demands and undermine the trust in the security of their own products?

For Apple hacking their iPhones

The mass shooting that occurred at San Bernardino, California and was carried out by home-grown extremists claimed the lives of 14 American citizens. While investigating the incident, the FBI recovered an iPhone from Syed Rizwan Farook(1), one of the perpetrators. In this age that we live in where almost everyone has a digital footprint, the FBI were confident that valuable information could be gathered from contents of the phone. However to access it they needed Apple’s help to hack the phone. Apple rejected the FBI issued warrant arguing that the government was effectively asking them to create a backdoor in their operating system which would ultimately make all iPhones vulnerable to hacking should the tool be acquired by criminals. Various other tech companies(8) have sided with Apple citing a breach of the civil rights of the product consumers as a reason for their support.

Apple’s decision has violated the All Writs Act(2), which the US Congress passed in courts as a means of ensuring that their lawful warrants would not be frustrated by third parties like Apple. This was created as a reasonable solution to Apple’s decision to engineer its products so that the government cannot search them without a warrant from the Supreme Court(1). The government also argues that the invocation of the All Writs Act is not intended to set a legal precedent but does help in the protection of national security; although most Americans are concerned by the anonymous gathering of personal information(3), we argue that the case in question is not comparable to the surveillance of ordinary citizens as Farook was acting to serve against the ‘common good’ by compromising public safety and security(6).

The government has outlined a set of restrictions governing the methodology used to gather information from the iPhone, ensuring that an unlawful infringement of the Fourth Amendment does not occur. Farook has also consented to the carrying out of the search as part of his employment agreement with the County(2). This court order counteracts Apple’s claim that the modified OS would serve as a backdoor to unlock all iPhones, as it ensures the use of the modified OS is limited to the phone connected to this incident; furthermore the analysis would be carried out at a location of Apple’s choice under the strict guidance of Apple employees to ensure no public phones were targeted.


We believe that Apple should accept the terms of the warrant and allow the FBI to gather information from Farook’s iPhone. Despite claims that the modified OS could serve as a means of hacking into any iPhone for the purpose of general public surveillance, the US government has taken steps to ensure that the modified OS would only be used specifically for this case and subsequent similar cases.

Against Apple hacking their iPhones

In this post-Snowden era that the US exists in, polls have found that most Americans are concerned(3) that their information is being accessed without their knowledge. This has led the marketing of most tech companies like Apple, Google and Microsoft to be aligned with the public’s perception of government surveillance. The FBI however tried to force Apple to hack an iPhone recovered from the shootout scene at San Bernardino with an unprecedented use of the All Writs Act(1). Apple’s predictable reluctance to hack the phone has been explained by numerous commentators(4) as a public brand marketing strategy. However this distracts from the real problems that could arise should Apple be forced to hack their own phone.

Due to the encryption software that rolled out with versions of iOS 8 in September 2014, Apple has said that hacking a single iPhone to creating a master key, which could hack any iPhone. In effect, the FBI is asking Apple to compromise the security of all its customers, but isn’t that too high a price to pay? The scope of the legal precedent set should this proposed action be carried out is unimaginable. Due to its blatant infringement on the public’s privacy, the constitutionality of the All Writs Act would be questioned. A judge in a similar case particularly highlights the absurdity of the government’s interpretation of the All Writs Act concluding(5) that had the court accepted the government’s position it would have transformed the All Writs Act from a limited gap-filling statute to an overpowered legislation limited only by the Congress.

The government argues that its invocation of the All Writs Act is not intended to set a legal precedent. Should we choose to believe the government, this doesn’t negate the fact that from the government filings, they seem to acknowledge that the order they are requesting is about much more than gaining access to a single phone. Rather, it wants to ensure it can maintain access to any phone. Permitting this situation, allows the government to play God, leaving them to decide which information is worth hacking for. This unsupervised access to otherwise confidential data can lead to an abuse of the power they hold.

Although hacking the iPhone could very well lead to the discovery of very valuable information that could help with the war on terror, we do not think the privacy of hundreds of millions of iPhone customers is a suitable price to pay. So should the FBI look for alternative solutions to help further their investigations? That said, I leave you with this quote;

“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety”

– Benjamin Franklin, Memoirs of the life and writings of Benjamin Franklin.

Should Apple hack the phones but deny it in public to preserve their public image? Should the FBI go to Congress to get a favourable legislation approved rather than abuse an essential statute in the US constitution? Should Apple reject the FBI’s order and risk being called terrorist sympathisers? Should Apple accept the order and gamble on the legal precedent set? Should we be worried that the government might know the kind of music we are listening to?

68: Adam Murphy, Obafemi Faluyi, Deji Adepetun, Roland Mbanefo

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12 thoughts on “Apple vs. FBI: Is national security worth our privacy?

  1. Personally I believe apple are right for not agreeing to spy on their users, it takes away the freedom from people if the government can know what is going on in their personal lives. Also if apple decide to go along with the FBI and create a backdoor to the phone sold to their users, the terrorists as well might be able to hack into the phones and plan their attacks. I am defo for apple.

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  2. Although the FBI has sufficient reasons to request that the phone be hacked, I am afraid that I’ll have to side with Apple on this one. The reason being that the level of risk Iphone users might be exposed to, should the FBI get their way. There is an increasingly high amount of people becoming Iphone users, people store important information and schedules on their phones. By creating this loophole or “backdoor” as you say, Apple could be unknowingly putting several people in danger and could possibly ruin a country’s economy, if for example important government information were hacked into and exposed.

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  3. Great article summarising both arguments in this debate. I have to agree with Apple here in that, in my opinion, the discovery of possible information related to this terrorist attack is not worth compromising the safety of all iPhones. If this so called “backdoor” is created, it is only a matter of time before the master key to open it falls into the wrong hands.

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  4. I believe the though the FBI’s request to Apple seems to come with the best intentions, the risks it provides are not worth Apple creating a ‘master key’. Considering the US Governments track record of covertly surveilling its citizens. It is not far fetched to imagine this ‘master key’ being used to gain access to user phones for the slightest of reasons. Considering all it would take would be a warrant from a federal judge. A very likely scenario following this precedent would be the government invading the privacies of its citizens on the smallest whim of suspicion. At what point do we draw the line on the level of intrusion into ones privacy? I believe the negative possibilities of this move outweigh the positives. As if Apple were to adhere to the government, it would be publicly announced and there is every likelihood, the terrorists being tracked would look for other means of communication. I believe the best solution would be for the government to hire third-party hackers to hack the ONE single iphone and leave the millions of other iphones protected still.

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    1. You suggest that the FBI should hire third party hackers to go through the iPhone’s firmware but insist Apple should not hack the phones. Do I need to point out the flaw in your argument? Should this said third party hackers manage to hack the phone then they have in fact created the master key. Just so you know, these hackers would know the value of what they have created and would definitely not shy from selling to the highest bidder.
      Now lets consider the other scenario. Should Apple hack the iPhone they can control the access to the “master key”. This limits the potential collateral.
      My conclusion is that Apple is more concerned with protecting their public image, which seems alright until you realize that they are doing so over protecting the lives of citizens.
      I suggest you step back and look at the picture then reassess your stance on this situation.

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  5. I’ll have to favour “against Apple hacking their iPhones”, although the FBI have good reasons for needing the information on the phone which could help in gathering information about the terrorist. The risk is just too high, with the vast amount of iPhone users in the world, privacy will almost seize to exist as most people have information on their day-day lives stored in their phones. Why put millions at risk for just one, this could also spell bad business for Apple as well.

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    1. Firstly, if you think Apple’s business and the war on terror should be placed on the same pedestal then I don’t know what to say. Also you say that they should not risk the privacy of millions for the information from one. Let me point out to you that should the iPhone be hacked then this could help prevent domestic recruitment and radicalization of potential terrorists.

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  6. I argue for apple hacking the iPhones. The media believes that the San Bernardino shooter could have been working under the influence of foreign terrorist groups This seized iPhone could contain information that could explain how they weaponized a domestic extremist. It could probably expose the various channels they use to contact people who believe in what they stand for. I argue for the hacking because we can not lie and wait and hope that this tragedy does not happen again. We need to step up and relinquish our privacy because what good is it if we are under constant terror.

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  7. I understand the good intention following the request from the FBI but I believe the FBI could possibly discover other ways to help their case rather than requesting access to any apple phone. If the FBI requested access to just that particular phone it would be more favourable but since ‘Apple has said that hacking a single iPhone leads to creating a master key ‘, then hacking into one phone would compromise the privacy other customers, which leaves them vulnerable.

    I believe the tool the FBI is requesting would definitely lead to an abuse of power and enable them use it at their discretion, which could be a dangerous tool. The argument here is based on weighing the importance of protection of life against protection of privacy but if the FBI is successful, it would lead to precedent which could possibly be cited by future prosecutors to gain access to any device. The FBI is trying to solve one problem that could potentially lead to multiple problems if for example the tool is acquired by criminals or more terrorists. Simply put, The price is definitely too much to pay.

    Finally, there is no assurance that anything found on Farook’s phone would lead to useful evidence for the case, so based on the negative effects associated with the FBI gaining access to the device, is it a risk worth taking?

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  8. As I read this post, the FBI has already hacked the San Bernardino iPhone to the surprise of many including myself. Employing third party hackers who specialize in finding flaws in software, they did so without the input of apple. Now the FBI predictably have refused share the information as to how the firmware was hacked and this puts Apple in a difficult position, one they could have avoided had they put their public image in the backseat and done what needed to be done. I can expect a legal tug of war to go on for the foreseeable future and I do not expect the FBI to budge.

    Lastly, the third party hackers employed are those who are ethically ambiguous and would not shy away from a fat pay check even if it meant releasing sensitive information.

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  9. I support apple’s decision to request the FBI’s request to hack the iPhone. The FBI have good reasons, even though they tried to force them against their will using the All writs Act. The risk simply too high, their customers who already believe that the government is spying on them. This will indirectly confirm their beliefs and take the world backwards in term of using technology.

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  10. Apple is right to reject the FBI’s request to hack Farook’s phone. Hacking this iPhone could help the FBI gain access to crucial information that might help them in their investigation, and prevent future attacks. However, if Apple were to comply, then this opens up all sorts of debate on what types of situations would make it acceptable to override the security features in place with these smartphones. Hacking this single iPhone involves creating a master key which could potentially put the privacy of other iPhone users at risk. Also, accepting the request will certainly give way for other requests such as these to be made by other agencies/organisations. It’ll become a common procedure in no time.

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