I am, above nearly all else, a stanch advocate of the right to privacy. So when word began to circulate yesterday that a District Court Judge had ruled that Apple had to assist the FBI in accessing an iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino shooters, it caught my attention immediately. The ruling essentially ordered Apple to create a new version of the iPhone operating system that would circumvent established security features. In the most basic of terms, Apple was ordered to create a backdoor into their products – directly to their customers – for the United States Government.
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I was prepared to wait some time before receiving further information – Apple was given several days to either comply or appeal. However, this morning Apple’s big dog Tim Cook published an open letter to anyone interested enough to read it. And based on the trending topics on Twitter today, a hell of a lot of people were interested.
In the letter, Cook states that “the U.S. government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create. They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone.”
“Specifically, the FBI wants us to make a new version of the iPhone operating system, circumventing several important security features, and install it on an iPhone recovered during the investigation. In the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession,” Cook wrote. “The FBI may use different words to describe this tool, but make no mistake: Building a version of iOS that bypasses security in this way would undeniably create a backdoor. And while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control.”
Cook voiced the concerns that many may have been too afraid to even consider throughout the course of this letter. Namely, that this demand was not in regards to a single phone, but rather the creation of a weak spot that would ultimately serve as a “master key” that is “capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks.” Cook stated that the government is asking Apple to “hack” their own users. Cook then went on to call the demands “chilling,” explicitly stating that the breach of privacy could be extended, perhaps demanding that Apple “build surveillance software to intercept your messages, access your health records or financial data, track your location, or even access your phone’s microphone or camera without your knowledge.”
“Opposing this order is not something we take lightly. We feel we must speak up in the face of what we see as an overreach by the U.S. government,” Cook wrote. “We are challenging the FBI’s demands with the deepest respect for American democracy and a love of our country. We believe it would be in the best interest of everyone to step back and consider the implications.”
The first obvious issue here is that the government is attempting to force a company to create something that does not currently exist, and most importantly, that it does not want to create. That on its own carries terrifying implications for businesses moving forward, as such a ruling sets the precedent for the US government to be able to turn any business into an agent of the government against their will. This is not just that they are attempting to force Apple to create something they do not wish to create as a company either, but they are, in truth, trying to force Apple to create software that will break the software that they did want to create. Does your head hurt yet?
The second issue is the one that Cook touched on extensively – the demand that privacy and data security be exchanged for the illusion – and yes, it is an illusion – of safety. Make no mistake, the primary reason that the FBI has any advocates in this battle is because they have tapped into a very real, very legitimate fear that is gripping the hearts of the people of this country right now: the fear of terrorism. This is something that we have both seen and experienced first hand, and is shamelessly being exploited in order to do something that the government has been attempting to do for a very long time – more surveillance.
Critics of Apple may view this as a self-serving promotional opportunity seized by the company, and they’re probably right. It’s obviously beneficial to Apple to publicly stand up for their customers. However, it is also worth noting that, while there was news coverage following the initial ruling, there was not nearly the amount of discussion about the demands, or the implications, as there was when Cook so publicly declined. Digital security is an issue that affects nearly every American, and yet it is a topic so few have taken to discussing openly. Cook’s response was forceful, fiery, and left no room for misinterpretation – Apple is fighting this, and is doing so in a way that informs every single American of what’s happening. This matter could have been addressed quietly, and if you weren’t directly interested in it, you may never have heard about it without that letter. So sure, maybe it was promotional or self-serving. But it also served me. It served you. I just find it sad that Apple appears to have more respect for my rights than my own government does.
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