Apple has refused to comply with an FBI request to break into the phone of Seyd Farook who killed 14 people on Dec. 2 in a terrorist attack with his wife in San Bernardino. The tech giant refuses to comply because doing so would counter everything the company has worked towards and it would compromise the privacy of their customers.
In a California federal court order issued on Feb. 16, the FBI demanded, via the All Writs Act, that Apple aid the FBI with breaking into Farook’s phone. The FBI believes that there is information regarding the attack on the phone and that it will aid in identifying other terrorists.
Tech companies from Google to Facebook have voiced their support of Apple’s decision. Per the Washington Times, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said, “forcing companies to enable hacking could compromise users’ privacy” and could set a “troubling precedent.” Additionally, Google, Facebook, and Twitter are filing amicus briefs on behalf of Apple.
Why the FBI needs Apple to unlock the phone
Even though the FBI is an investigative agency, it doesn’t have the technology to break through the iPhone’s passcode protection.
David Zeichick, a security specialist and computer science teacher at California State University, Chico, said that the iPhone has three security measures:
An incorrect passcode can only be entered 10 times. After the 10th time, the phone is completely wiped of all its data.
After every incorrect guess, the user must wait before trying again. The wait to re-enter a code gets longer with every incorrect entry. After the ninth attempt, the wait is one hour.
The passcode has to be physically typed in.
“All data is encrypted,” Zeichick said. “The only way to get data off an iPhone is to put in a passcode… The only way to break into that (an iPhone) is you have to know the passcode to get onto the data.”
Since it is impossible to figure out the actual passcode, the FBI needs Apple to update the operating system of the phone with a new software program that would create a backdoor into the phone. Only Apple can update the operating system with new software because it has the “secret password” to do so, Zeichick said.
Critics have claimed that if Apple complies it would be disastrous for people’s personal privacy because the government would be able to get into any phone.
James Comey, director of the FBI, addressed these fears in a letter to the public. “We don’t want to break anyone’s encryption or set a master key loose on the land,” he wrote last week.
Comey went on to say that the FBI doesn’t need Farook’s physical phone because it can be accessed remotely, so it can stay at Apple’s headquarters.
Why Apple doesn’t want to comply
They are afraid that it will create a precedent that forces them to hack into their own devices whenever the government demands. Their fear is that the government will continue citing national security as a reason for the company to jailbreak its system, ultimately tarnishing their reputation as a company with private and secure devices, Zeichick said.
Other tech companies are worried the precedent for Apple could apply to them, too.
In a letter to Apple customers, Apple CEO Tim Cook said: “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.”
Other countries’ citizens stand to lose something, too. If Apple is forced to comply with the U.S. government, perhaps it will be forced to follow orders of other countries of the same nature, Zeichick said.
However, the FBI isn’t looking to set a precedent.
“The San Bernardino litigation isn’t about trying to set a precedent or send any kind of message. It is about the victims and justice,” said Ziechick.
The problems go beyond compromising security. If the company is forced to install a backdoor, consumers will buy from other companies for secure devices, Zeichick said.
Taking it one step further, if all tech companies were mandated to build government backdoors to their devices and software, consumers may buy from foreign companies who don’t have to create a backdoor. This wouldn’t hurt just the companies themselves, but potentially the American economy.
“If they [tech companies] are hindered and not able to produce super secure software but other countries can, then there goes their market share,” Zeichick said.
This case could go to the Supreme Court, Zeichick said.
Since the court can potentially tie in the wake of ex-Justice Antonin Scalia’s death, it could have major implications on the next presidential election. Zeichick said, Candidates might be asked questions about what kind of judge they would appoint and how that judge stands on issues regarding national security and privacy.
It also makes President Obama’s decision that much more complicated. Along with the trouble he is already facing from the republican party, lawmakers and citizens may have grievances if he chooses someone who favors privacy over national security, or vice versa, Zeichick said.