In FBI vs Apple, it’s National Security vs Privacy

One of the things we take for granted in our modern tech-centric life is that, when we enable our iPhone’s security passcode, Apple will deliver on its claim that our data is secure and there is no way for cyber-criminals, Apple employees or even government officials to access the private information encrypted and stored there.

But if the FBI has its way, that might change, in the name of national security.

The FBI has in its custody an iPhone used by a San Bernardino terrorist; Apple has been cooperating with authorities in the investigation, even offering its engineers to assist them. But this week, the FBI ordered Apple to make a new version of the iPhone operating system, circumventing what it calls “important security features,” and install it on the terrorist’s iPhone so agents can search for valuable information to combat terrorism.

The issue, of course, is that this technology, which does not yet exist, would provide, in essence, a “master key” to unlock the terrorist’s phone and the encrypted data. But, Apple argues, it’s not about just this one phone. Once the technology exists – once there is a back door to Apple’s operating system – this “master key” cannot be absolutely safeguarded, and can ostensibly, open any locked iPhone. And cyber-criminals will find a way to hack it.

If such technology falls into the wrong hands (or even if it stays in the government’s hands), anyone with an iPhone, they argue, could fall victim to dangerous intrusion (from cyber-criminals or even the government), who could use the technology to access private data stored on phones – everything from photos to calendars to financial and health data, to information about where people are and where they’re going.

There are a few things at stake here:

  • Apple’s brand, which has thrived on the trust it’s earned from its customers. The security of their devices is a key selling point; without it, the brand will suffer and the price of its devices will be driven down
  • A jolt to the already wobbly balance that exists between a citizen’s right to privacy and the need for authorities to gain anti-terrorism intelligence
  • The setting of a precedent that could lead to further erosion of personal privacy, at the hands of the government
  • The possibility of authorities actually obtaining information that will help thwart, capture or defeat terrorists

Apple, in a letter to its customers, argues that it is an “overreach by the U.S. government” that sets a “dangerous precedent” and begins a slide down a slippery slope. Apple wants no part of it and is fighting the court order.

“The implications of the government’s demands are chilling,” Apple CEO Tim Cook writes, adding that, if Apple allows this breach, the government could next demand that Apple build surveillance software that could, for instance, intercept messages or access financial records.

From a technology standpoint, kicking open a back door to personal devices is something that would indeed be dangerous; there is no way to go back and protect the vulnerability that was just created. Security will undoubtedly be compromised and the ramifications would be far-reaching.

However, it’s also important to note that most of the sensitive information that people ACCESS from their phones – financial and medical information, for instance – actually RESIDE in other places and can be obtained by subpoena.

It will be interesting to see how this issue develops; the question consumers will have to grapple with is whether national security is worth the erosion of a little more of their privacy.