Why Apple Is Right To Deny FBI’s Request To ‘Hack’ iPhone

When the FBI asked Apple to assist in hacking an iPhone on national security grounds, Apple refused. When a federal magistrate ordered Apple to work with the FBI to hack an iPhone, Apple again refused (well, not yet officially). Apple should challenge the court order, because they are on the correct side of civil liberties and privacy.

When Apple rolled out iOS 8 in 2014, the new mobile operating system included upgraded encryption that would make it impossible for the company to unencrypt a device. This means Apple cannot grant the government access to encrypted data on iOS devices, even if compelled by court order. It simply isn’t possible. There is no master key. There is no workaround. There is no backdoor.

In the aftermath of the San Bernardino mass shooting, where a husband and wife, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, killed 14 and wounded 22, the FBI has asked Apple to create a new version of its mobile operating system, allowing the FBI to unlock Farook’s iPhone 5C via brute force. The FBI wants Apple to disable the security feature that wipe’s an iPhone’s contents after 10 unsuccessful password attempts, and they also want Apple to allow password attempts electronically instead of requiring the password to be entered physically via the iPhone’s screen. This would allow the FBI to use millions of combinations via high-speed computer. When Apple rebuffed the FBI, the bureau took the issue to court, and the court sided with the FBI, ordering Apple to hack their own security.

In response to this unprecedented court order, Apple released a statement to their customers stating in-part, “The government is asking Apple to hack our own users and undermine decades of security advancements that protect our customers — including tens of millions of American citizens — from sophisticated hackers and cybercriminals.” Adding, “The same engineers who built strong encryption into the iPhone to protect our users would, ironically, be ordered to weaken those protections and make our users less safe.”

Some legislators, all too eager to trot out typical national security tropes, are saying Apple is trying to protect a terrorist. “Apple chose to protect a dead ISIS terrorist’s privacy over the security of the American people,” said Senator Tom Cotton (R). This is an incredibly weak statement, but unfortunately it is what we have come to expect in a nation gripped with fear.

Far too often those who complain most about big government are the first to demand that same big government infringe privacy in the name of national security. It seems “keeping us safe” trumps the constitution, and that is exactly what is playing out here. Does anyone really believe this is a good bargain?

This isn’t about protecting the privacy of a dead terrorist. It’s about the privacy of millions of people. There’s a big difference between cracking a physical safe and a digital backdoor to get around encryption. Because once that digital backdoor exists, it doesn’t matter if it was only pushed to this one phone, it exists in the world, and puts at risk the encryption on all phones. How do we know this backdoor won’t fall into the hands of the terrorists?

It doesn’t matter if you have nothing to hide, because that isn’t the point. This is a terrible defense to make while handing over your privacy and civil liberties. Nonetheless, it is a common refrain. I’m not saying I don’t understand this tendency, but the problem is that it justifies erasing and re-drawing the line on privacy. How often can we continue to do this?

Even if we agree with the intentions of the FBI, it still doesn’t make it right. Apple should not be compelled to compromise the security and privacy of millions of innocent people. We should evaluate security and privacy issues by making a well-reasoned judgement that will stand the test of time. We should not allow ourselves to be prone to rash decisions out of the fear of the moment. I absolutely expect law enforcement to try as hard as they can to get as much information as they can, through whatever avenues they believe they can navigate. But, it is the job of the rest of us to keep law enforcement in check, not just go along for the ride at every turn.

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