A Dangerous Precedent: What Apple’s Standoff with FBI Will Mean 10 Years From Now

On Tuesday, a judge ordered Apple to assist the FBI in unlocking an iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernadino shooters. Apple is strongly saying ‘No.’ Here’s why.

Josh Srago

The news of the day in the digital world has largely focused on the circumstances surrounding the FBI requesting, and a judge complying, that Apple assist in unlocking the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters.

Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, has publicly responded that Apple will not participate in this process citing the dangerous precedent that would be set were they to comply in a personal letter to customers. The likelihood of this moving to a higher court to find a resolution is extremely high. As you can imagine, this can be considered both a very simple and an extraordinarily complex issue.

Simply Stated…

From the thirty-thousand foot view, this is a cut-and-dry issue about privacy. Should a private corporation that provides devices that have become integral parts of our lives and contain endless amounts of private information be required to aid law enforcement agencies in accessing that information if it happens to be unavailable to them due to encryption? This can easily be seen as a yes or no question because it’s about whether or not Apple is willing to hack, or provide a government agency the ability to hack, into a purchased and personally owned device.

One comparison drawn in a report online said it was like compelling a safe manufacturer to open a privately owned safe for the government to see what’s inside because they don’t know the combination or possess the ability to crack it. Given the kind of information that most people keep on their phones, this is an extremely adept comparison.

So, which would you pick? Yes, Apple should aid the FBI to hack into the phone invading the privacy of the owner, or no, Apple’s decision that it is not their policy to provide back doors or encryption keys for law enforcement to search the privately owned devices that they sell?

Complexity at Its Finest

Regardless of whether or not you said yes or no to the simply stated question and issue above, that is merely just the beginning. The truth is that this issue isn’t about unlocking or decrypting access to a single phone. Instead, the entire goal of this request from the FBI to the courts is to attempt to establish a precedent for this kind of proceeding allowing any law enforcement agency to access any device for whatever reason they deem fit.

If the FBI and the courts are able to establish that this is how something should be handled, then that is the way the other hearings and cases will manage it moving forward, providing law enforcement access to private and encrypted information.

The breadth of this request may currently be refined to this one case in the U.S., but if Apple does move forward with this order from the courts, the precedent will have worldwide implications. Russia, China, and other countries will attempt to force Apple to provide them with the key to unlock the data within their phones. These are the countries that U.S. citizens often view as oppressive of their population at present. So, if we’re so concerned about the wellbeing of the citizenry of these nations and their relationship with the governments we already see as acting like big brother, why is it we’re willing to begin the process ourselves, as well as allow them to fall further down their path?

Related: Who Owns the Code?

Now we get to face the moral issue where we ask if this isn’t okay because the person in question in this case was deemed to be a terrorist and thereby guilty of committing heinous acts. So, in this case isn’t it okay for law enforcement to ask for help in getting through the digital blockades? Many would say yes to these circumstances.

Mark Coxon posed this concern: if the government doesn’t have the personnel to break through the encryption built, doesn’t that show a bigger issue when it comes to law enforcement in the digital age?

The simple answer is yes, but you can’t stop at that question. Why don’t government agencies supposedly have the talent to crack these codes? The obvious answer is that those with the skills can make a lot more money with much greater opportunities by not working for the government.

Additionally, who is to say that they don’t have the capability? If you were a government agency, would you want to identify to the world that you have the ability to break the encryption of one of the most popular electronic devices on the planet unless you absolutely had to? Why not play dumb and get the manufacturer to take care of it for you? Wouldn’t that be a whole lot easier? Wouldn’t that also mean that you have the precedent to do it again in the future when necessary?

Manufacturers Moving Forward

“If nothing else, the Apple All Writs order underscores a basic security principle: design your systems so even you can’t attack them,” says Matt Blaze via Twitter. The greater conversation about encryption has been lingering in the national conversation for a while with government agencies calling for back door access and product manufacturers and advocacy groups all seeming to stand together on the notion that providing any kind of a back door means that there’s no real security to the devices or services whatsoever.

We live in the age when these personal devices and services store information about who we are. The call log information is stored by the carrier and accessible to law enforcement through them. The computers or cloud locations might be synchronized to the phone’s data transmissions meaning that there are other ways to potentially get that data rather than right from the phone itself. Personal data and information has become who we are in the world today, “‘[I]f anyone other than the user can get in, it’s not secure.’ Manufacturer access is a vulnerability,” tweeted Edward Snowden.

The precedent as it stands today is that no court has ever forced a technology company to unlock a device in this fashion. Returning to the safe analogy, no safe maker has ever been forced to make a master key to allow this kind of access. The Writs have never been read or interpreted in this manor by any court in history and it’s likely that will remain when all is said and done.

How do we protect ourselves as private individuals and citizens while still trying to ensure that law enforcement can maintain the safety that we find society is seeking? This is still an unknown and likely to remain as such for the foreseeable future.

This article was originally published on SoundReason.org.