The issue of privacy versus security is once again dividing the public thanks to the decision by Apple to oppose a judge’s order to unlock the iPhone 5c of Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the two people implicated in the San Bernardino shooting last year.
For the public, the issue revolves around trust of the government, the fear of terrorism, and the need to maintain at least some level of privacy. For Apple, privacy and security are a major selling point, something that the company probably fears will be lost of every cellphone maker willingly provides the government a “backdoor” to their devices.
This is not an issue in many countries where the idea that a citizen has a right to privacy is generally accepted. What is a surprise to some, however, is that this right is not enshrined in the US Constitution either, only elements of it such as the Fourth Amendment of the Bill of Rights:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
As the government secured a warrant to search Farook’s iPhone (which was the property of his workplace, in any case), the issue really isn’t about the government having the right to access the data in the phone – that is established, they do. But the issue is Apple building a so-called backdoor for the government.
This is an immensely complicated thing for most of the public, many of whom have formed an opinion based simply on the issue of privacy versus security.
But first, let’s look at what the judge is actually ordering Apple to do: develop and load a new version of the iPhone’s operating system into this particular iPhone, one that would allow authorities to use its computers to quickly guess Farook’s passcode without being locked out before reaching the allowable number of wrong guesses.
This seems reasonable… until one realizes that once it is known that Apple has this software and can load it into any iPhone, then authorities can ask for it to be installed again.
“This is a new situation in new circumstances,” said Christopher Budd, global threat communications manager, Trend Micro. “Both parties have good and valid arguments. It’s the ongoing tension between individual privacy and collective security.”
One could reasonably say that many factors have to be lined up before any new software solution was ever used: the iPhone would be in the possession of the authorities, and a warrant would be in hand, for instance. If the subject of the investigation were still alive they would, one assumes, be able to challenge the use of the software in court.
But does the government have the right to order a company to develop a piece of software? Apple says “no” but if this case proceeds on it might find that the government has picked the perfect case to test this. Farouk is dead, and the owner of the iPhone is cooperating and has no objections to the phone being unlocked. Further, many citizens are unsympathetic to a company not cooperating in an effort to halt terrorism, no matter what privacy issues may be involved. After all, there is a large percentage of the US population supporting a candidate for President that advocates that the government needs to increase its use of torture.
And as lawyers have pointed out on Twitter and elsewhere, this case also has first amendment implications in that it would require Apple to create and publish code to accomplish the task set in the judge's order.
— Ryan Calo (@rcalo) February 17, 2016
Maybe Apple knows it will lose this, and is willing to have this case go all the way up to the Supreme Court in order to show customers they are fighting for their privacy. This case is a good one for them, too. After all, there is no immediately threat (though some might argue that any time wasted discovering Farook’s contact might be seen as creating a threat).
Apple now has five days to respond, then another ruling will likely it force it comply. Apple will then appeal to the next level.
Give an FBI a key and he can fish for a day, but teach an FBI how to replace firmware and he can SPY FOREVER.
— Joshua Tauberer (@JoshData) February 17, 2016
In comment threads on the major newspaper website readers are arguing both sides of this issue. As far as I can tell opinion is pretty evenly split: many simply do not trust the government and want their devices secure, no matter the cost; others have adopted what might be called the “if you’ve not done anything wrong you have nothing to worry about” position. Still others uses the “hidden nuclear bomb” argument to defend the government’s position.