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A dangerous divide: FBI vs. Apple

Austin Bell, Technology Editor, Puma Press

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Imagine a world were there was a physical or digital key able to unlock any door. Sure, this might sound like a reasonable thing to have, but what happens when an individual or groups grab ahold of it with possible ill intentions — one person or millions can suffer and lose everything they own both physically and digitally.

That is the exact issue in what is happening right now between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Apple, a multinational company that designs consumer electronics and computer software.

The FBI and Apple are locked in a battle over the unlocking of an iPhone used by one of the terrorists in the 2015 San Bernardino attacks. Since taking over the operation and uncovering many details, the FBI has recently hit a brick wall.

An iPhone, specifically iPhone 5c, used by one of the terrorists has been encrypted, leaving the FBI with little option but to call upon the creators of the phone, Apple, to help them in unlocking it.

On Feb. 17, Apple CEO Tim Cook gave a detailed and impassioned statement to both the public and his employees detailing the reason why Apple won’t comply with court orders to unlock the iPhone. This event has escalated further and has transformed into an almost nationwide issue shaking the very foundations and principles of privacy and security.

The Master Key

Apple’s most well reasoned explanation for not creating a key for an encrypted device is simply that it isn’t a clean-cut solution and doing so would ignore the basic tenants of digital security.

Cook, in a special letter written to his customers on Apple’s own website, suggests that the government thinks that this technique can only be used once to produce an unlocked iPhone, but Apple says that is not true. In his own words Cook has stated, “Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices. In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks — from restaurants and banks to stores and homes. No reasonable person would find that acceptable.”

Apple and Tim Cook are looking to keep their decades of security advancements in place. Creating a backdoor for their consumer electronics is, in their eyes, undermining the privacy and protection of customers including tens of millions of Americans. If the FBI or Apple could not keep the key from falling into the wrong hands, it could be used for more unsavory acts from cybercriminals working individually or in groups.

James Comey

FBI Director James Comey speaks speaks during the Annual International Association of Chiefs of Police Conference, Monday, Oct. 21, 2013, at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia.

(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
FBI not backing down

James Comey, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation has also made statements in the weeks of February letting the public and the press know that the FBI is also not backing down in its case against Apple. After Apple has defied the court order presented by a federal judge, Sheri Pym in California, the case could possibly reach all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. This could very well be a precedent-setting case in the world of technology; on Feb. 25, Comey told the U.S. House Select Intelligence Committee that “the ultimate outcome of the Apple-FBI showdown is likely to guide how other courts handle similar requests. There have been other court orders just like this one that have compelled other phone makers to unlock a password protected device.One of the FBI’s main reasons for Apple to work with them is a two-sentence law that was written during the birth of our American legal system. The All Writs Act allows that the Supreme Court and all courts established by an Act of Congress may issue all writs necessary or appropriate in aid of their respective jurisdictions and agreeable to the usages and principles of law.

Silicon Valley Taking Sides

Many companies and their CEO’s have voiced their opinions and have sided with Apple over its refusal to unlock the iPhone. Companies such as Yahoo, Twitter, and Google have come to the defense of Apple and have backed Tim Cook’s opening statement or made comments of their own.

Mark Zuckerberg whole-heartedly defended Apple, during Mobile World Conference in Barcelona, Spain, he remarked, “We’re sympathetic with Apple. We believe in encryption; we think that that’s an important tool.” Also while in Barcelona he spoke to journalists about the big responsibility that Facebook has in reporting and preventing terrorism attacks.

Microsoft Co-founder and former CEO, Bill Gates, offered a more balanced approach on how to handle the ongoing situation; this differs from the various heads of the tech industry falling in line and taking Apple’s side. In an interview with the Financial Times that you can view on YouTube, Bill Gates noted that the FBI case was something particular: “This is a specific case where the government is asking for access to information. They are not asking for some general thing. They are asking for a particular case.”

Public Opinion Divided

While law enforcement and the technology industry have clearly drawn lines in the sand and are hard locked to their sides of the issue, the public has had a tough time deciding on the decision in decrypting the iPhone.

Various polls from websites, such as Pew Research Center and YouGov, show that people are divided regardless of age or party. According to a Pew Research Center poll taken Feb. 18th through the 21st there has been more support for the U.S. Justice Department in unlocking the iPhone than for Apple.

YouGov, a similar website to Pew Research Center, also conducted a poll and found out that while nearly two-thirds of Americans want Apple to cooperate with the FBI, there is almost an even split between those who would like companies dealing with consumer data and privacy to prioritize that over helping law enforcement entities in dealing with terrorism.

Biggest Tech Case of the Decade

Throughout the whole turmoil of trying to unlock iPhone, the battle really isn’t just about the phone but the constant wrestling between security and privacy and the biggest technological case so far in the 21st century. This could be the first step in whether mass surveillance could be enacted taking away millions of people’s freedom. Or on the other hand, high-level privacy could allow both individuals and criminals to commit law-breaking acts without being discovered, making the justice and law enforcement officials’ jobs of tracking criminals harder.

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A dangerous divide: FBI vs. Apple