To civil libertarians and privacy activists, Apple’s refusal to help the FBI crack an encrypted phone that belonged to one of the San Bernardino shooters is a noble stance. But to many others, especially those who are not well-versed in the tech world, the company’s stance on the matter may seem petty, if not downright dangerous.
The phone belonged to a person who killed 14 innocent people after pledging allegiance to ISIS. If this was a physical safe holding documents related to the shooting, there would be no issue with cracking it open for authorities (assuming a warrant was issued). So why should an iPhone be treated differently? Not to mention the fact that the person who owned the phone is now dead. Why is Apple so concerned about the privacy rights of a dead terrorist?
According to Apple, the matter isn’t that simple. In a letter posted on the company’s website earlier today, CEO Tim Cook stressed that it’s not a matter of Apple’s unwillingness to hack into a single phone. It’s a matter of Apple’s inability to do so without jeopardizing the phones of every iPhone user on the planet.
In the letter Cook stressed that up until now, Apple has done not only everything it was required to do in order to help the FBI investigation, but also everything it was able to do.
“When the FBI has requested data that’s in our possession, we have provided it,” Cook’s letter said. “Up to this point, we have done everything that is both within our power and within the law to help them.”
But the letter goes on to stress that complying with a recent court order to crack the phone in question, which would require Apple to create a “new version of the iPhone operating system, circumventing several important security features,” will have implications far beyond the case at hand.
The government suggests this tool could only be used once, on one phone. But that’s simply not true. 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.
If the shooting had happened earlier in 2015, the encryption issue would have been a moot point. That’s because with previous versions of its iOS software, Apple was, when provided with a court order, able to open a device that was using the operating system. But as the following video from Voice of America explains, in September of 2015 an iOS update changed the way data was encrypted, supposedly making it impossible for the company to unlock a device, even if it was legally ordered to do so:
In a post on his blog, Matthew Green, a cryptographer and professor at Johns Hopkins University, speculated on various methods Apple could have used to achieve this level of encryption. I’ll spare you the technical details, which you can read about here. But regardless, when Apple says it cannot currently crack the San Bernardino shooter’s phone, it is most likely telling the truth. So criticizing the company for not unlocking this phone is pointless.
However, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies have been criticizing Apple for months over the new encryption process, warning that a scenario similar to what we’re seeing with the San Bernardino case was likely to occur. And while you may or may not agree with the government’s stance, clearly the larger debate about encryption is just getting started.