FBI vs. Apple : A Fight Unfolds, A Nation Divides, The World Watches

Asokan Ashok

March 01, 2016
FBI Apple

Privacy vs. Security — one of the most debated arguments we have heard numerous times in recent days due to the ongoing legal battle between the FBI & Apple. The debate raises an important question - In this digital age is Privacy real? Or is it a mistaken belief we hold on to?

With technology playing a big role in the day-to-day lives of regular people, this legal tug of war between Apple and the FBI is more important now than ever. The outcome will shape future technology policies, influence how technology companies build security for their devices and set precedents and rules for law enforcement with regard to technology.

How it all BEGAN

  • An act against humanity was committed
  • The law springs in to action
  • The iPhone 5C of the shooter is recovered during the investigation by the FBI
  • Apple helps the FBI extensively by sharing data from the offender’s iPhone on the iCloud servers
  • The FBI, unable to unlock the phone, stands to lose the data on the phone with approximately 6 weeks’ worth of info if the failed password attempts cross ten
  • FBI wants Apple to write a custom iOS - dubbed by Apple as “GovtOS”, to circumvent this authentication
  • A federal magistrate judge, at the request of the Justice department, orders Apple to help the FBI
  • Apple refuses to comply and CEO Tim Cook puts up an open letter to Apple Customers on Apple’s website detailing its reasons for opposing this order

Why does Apple pushback over this GovtOS?

  • The GovtOS doesn’t exist now and Apple would need to build this new version of iOS to circumvent failed authentications
  • This tool, in the hands of the government or any other third parties, would be dangerous and could be used to crack any iPhone of the same model
  • Apple repeatedly advocates privacy and Apple’s CEO Tim Cook has made many public statements about digital privacy’s importance in the past 18 months
  • There have been numerous requests from law enforcement agencies in the past for ordinary crimes, and Apple has extracted data for them but it has never unlocked devices for the government
  • Worldwide, Apple has sold more than 200 million iPhones this past year. This GovtOS with the potential to unlock even a fraction of these iPhones would be worth millions to any country or third parties
  • Complying with this court order today may set a dangerous precedent within the United States and other countries that Apple operates in
  • Apple also argues that even if the GovtOS is built and wiped after being used on the terrorist’s phone, Apple will need to keep detailed logs & documentation about the OS for legal reasons - governments or third parties can then recreate the OS in the future even if the OS doesn’t exist

A Nation Divided

The issue of Privacy vs. Security has been around for a long time and there have always been opposing sides that have made strong arguments to their case. This is just one of the latest issues for which each side has put forth their arguments again.

James Comey, Director of the FBI — “Maybe the phone holds the clue to finding more terrorists. Maybe it doesn’t. But we can’t look the survivors in the eye, or ourselves in the mirror, if we don’t follow this lead. We simply want the chance, with a search warrant, to try to guess the terrorist’s passcode without the phone essentially self-destructing and without it taking a decade to guess correctly. That’s it. We don’t want to break anyone’s encryption or set a master key loose on the land.”

Tim Cook’s email to Apple Employees - “The case is about much more than a single phone or a single investigation. At stake is the data security of hundreds of millions of law-abiding people, and setting a dangerous precedent that threatens everyone’s civil liberties. Ultimately, we fear that this demand would undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect”

CEO’s of various Technology companies have voiced their support for Apple

Google CEO Sundar Pichai : “We build secure products to keep your information safe and we give law enforcement access to data based on valid legal orders, but that’s wholly different than requiring companies to enable hacking of customer devices & data could be a troubling precedent.”

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates & his clarified stand : “I do believe there are sets of safeguards where the government shouldn’t have to be completely blind. But striking that balance…clearly the government has taken information historically and used it in ways that we didn’t expect, going all the way back to JFK and J Edgar Hoover. There should be safeguards in place when the government accesses such information.”

Yahoo CIO Bob Lord: “Ordering a company to hack one targeted system is clearly the first step to ordering them to backdoor them all.”

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg: “We’re sympathetic with Apple. We believe in encryption; we think that that’s an important tool”

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey : “We stand with Tim Cook and Apple (and thank him for his leadership)!”

WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum : “Couldn’t agree more with Cook and his letter. We must not allow this dangerous precedent to be set”

Encryption is set to become a Political Debate

The Whitehouse Statement : “The U.S. Department of Justice is not asking Apple to redesign its product or to create a new backdoor”

Presidential Candidate Donald Trump : “To think that Apple won’t allow us to get into her cellphone? Who do they think they are? No, we have to open it”

However, what does the public think? Public opinion has been divided. There are many polls that show the majority of the public supporting both sides. Both the FBI and Apple have tried to reach out and garner public support for their positions. The FBI says it is all about “The Victims and Justice” while Apple maintains its stand and explains with a typical FAQ for the customers.

Some VERY Important Points to Ponder

  • Does Privacy Really Exist in this digital age? Every move that you as a person make is already being watched by someone, could be your network service provider, browser, Google, Facebook, Apple, the police with cameras on every street corner and the likes.
  • What is Apple trying to protect?? Is it trying to protect its branding or standing? If it is privacy & security - does it NOT collect data from its users?? And does it NOT carry out targeted marketing towards them?
  • If Apple is trying to discuss Privacy & Security - why does it have Google Search Bar on its devices - and gets paid for it when Google collects your data and makes money out of it?
  • If Apple really wants Privacy & Security in its OS - why does it provide an SDK that allows access to user data on device? AND how much money does Apple make out of its app store??
  • Is Apple just pulling a PR Stunt against Google & Facebook whose revenues are based on “data”?

The World is WATCHING!

  • A meaningful disagreement with the court order may be difficult for Apple as the FBI has a valid warrant, the person being investigated is unquestionably guilty and there may be information on the phone that may lead to other terrorists and prevent future crimes
  • When the historical evidence is considered, it is clear that governments have abused power (e.g. PRISM surveillance program) and a trade off between privacy and security is a frequent consequence of real or perceived threats to domestic and national security
  • The stakes this time are higher - given the data a Smartphone holds, a master key or backdoor can lead to global surveillance unlike any known before
  • However, there are certain difficult features to be considered: -
  • If Apple resists and wins, the iPhone becomes much more secure and becomes a potentially dangerous device in the hands of evil doers
  • If Apple helps the FBI, it will be the first of many times it will be asked by governments and courts to circumvent the iPhone’s security. (And, of course next will be countless other device manufacturers.)
  • Technology companies, law enforcement agencies and policy makers should all work together to bring about a solution that is in everyone’s best interests, instead of standing on opposing sides

One thing is certain - whichever side you’re on, there is no denying the importance of this problem and both innocent and guilty will equally face the consequences if a backdoor is created.