Apple takes on FBI in cyber security showdown

Benjamin Franklin, one of the US founding fathers, is quoted as saying, “Those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one” – some would say that things have fundamentally changed since the days of Franklin.

There are very few issues that are as contentious today as achieving the proper scope of national security. With the Internet and an ever-increasing web of digital communication and organization, the question of how much regulatory oversight is necessary to protect the general populace lacks anything close to a clear consensus. The conflict over this has become increasingly evident particularly following President Bush’s war on terror that led to the authorization of civilian data collection, passing of the Patriot Act as well as through the acts of whistle-blowers such as Edward Snowden which have revealed the massive extent of state surveillance. The ensuing legal battle between Apple and the FBI perfectly embodies this conflict in all of its complexity and nuance.

FBI Director James Corey / DoNews

FBI Director James Corey / DoNews

Apple has set a standard for itself as a “pro-privacy” tech giant by making extremely digitally secure devices that even Apple itself can’t gain unlimited access to. The FBI is currently trying to compel Apple to “unlock” the cellphone used by the San Bernadino shooter Syed Farook. This past Tuesday, Apple CEO Tim Cook released a customer letter addressing the more complicated implications of this seemingly simple request and the reasons for Apple’s dissent:

“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. 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”.

The concern is not only that this could create a legal precedent for increased government oversight but that also “sophisticated hackers and cybercriminals” may be able to make use of such software as well.

According to The Guardian, Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, a proponent of cyber privacy has warned that “this move by the FBI could snowball around the world. Why in the world would our government want to give repressive regimes in Russia and China a blueprint for forcing American companies to create a backdoor?”.

Another concern is that even if a government is conducting cyber security in a responsible manner, one runs the risk of this security apparatus being hijacked by corrupt officials in order to surveille purported political dissidents – as is done in more authoritarian regimes such as China. Just because a government is currently acting “responsibly” doesn’t mean the capacity to act “irresponsibly” isn’t there. One of the most prevalent questions is as to whether the potential good of such increased security measures are worth the risk of potential misuse.

Those opposed to Apple’s decision to fight against the FBI claim that such accusations and concerns are wildly overdramatic. An article in Forbes levels a hefty admonishment against Apple for its decision: “If Apple does not comply, it could be compromising national security by being complicit in the concealment of valuable information that could thwart future terrorist attacks. And now, given all the buzz, an act of non-compliance would likely lead future terrorists to use an iPhone”. FBI director James Comey claimed at a 2014 meeting at the Brookings Institution that the tech industry’s resistance to increased security measures is indicative of an overarching and unfounded distrust of authority that is increasingly prevalent amongst the general populace. Comey laments this decision as a cynical betrayal of justice: “have we become so mistrustful of government and law enforcement in particular that we are willing to let bad guys walk away, willing to leave victims in search of justice?”

Apple CEO Tim Cook/ PRI

Apple CEO Tim Cook/ PRI

Though cyber security is a contentious issue it seems that for right now many lean on the side of the FBI.

According to The Wall Street Journal “About 51 per cent of Americans agree with the FBI, while 41 per cent side with Apple, according to a poll of about 1,000 adults conducted this week by online-survey company SurveyMonkey Inc.”. With the rise of ISIS and increasing attacks by lone-wolf terrorists, such as the San Bernadino shooters, there has been skyrocketing concern for national security – a concern that when one factors in the recent attacks on Paris and numerous other places, transcends American politics. This increased concern can be seen as an incredibly important issue in recent Western politics: From the political ascendance of Donald Trump (who has called for a boycott of Apple products until they comply with the FBI) to the heavy political resistance to the Liberal Party’s plans to bring in Syrian refugees to the rise of right-wing anti-migration populists such as Marine Le Pen in France. National security is a huge concern as are the potential costs in achieving it.

Robert Smith
Assistant External News Editor

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