Technology 2016-02-22

#AppleVsFBI Talking Points

By this point, most people in the tech world know about Apple’s fight against the FBI on hacking an iPhone used in a terrorist attack. Most in the tech world are siding with Apple, while many outside the tech world side with the FBI. Because of the controversy, we though it would be useful to present a summary of what is going on.

Here is how we’re breaking things down:

The Main Issue

Following the tragic events of the San Bernadino terrorist attacks, the FBI was able to find an iPhone left in the car of one of the attackers. The iPhone was encrypted. That is, the contents were protected in a way prevented the FBI from knowing what was on it. Apple had always had some form of protection on their phones, but they placed greater emphasis on encryption following the famous Edward Snowden leaks, which detailed government spying on American citizens.

The FBI approached Apple to hack the iPhone, which Apple refused to do. From this the FBI successfully sued to have Apple decrypt the iPhone. Apple, as represented by CEO Tim Cook, has vowed to fight the judgement, claiming the damage that could be done if they were to comply. As of this writing, this is where the situation stands.

A Basic Timeline

  1. The San Bernadino Attacks occur
  2. After the attacks, the FBI located an iPhone in the back seat of a car belonging to one of the terrorists
  3. According to Apple, the FBI may have accidentally rendered the iPhone unusable due to an error in trying to retrieve the information
  4. The FBI then successfully sued Apple to create a tool with which to decrypt the iPhone and gain access to its contents.
  5. Tim Cook issues an open letter, explaining that the request in unfeasible. Doing so would mean creating a tool that would compromise privacy and set a precedent for allowing the government to do so repeatedly
  6. Security expert and presidential candidate John McAfee offers to decrypt the iPhone for free. This would alleviate the need for Apple to create a potentially compromising tool

How This Affects You

This is the first time the government has successfully sued for the creation of a tool to undo the privacy protection features of a smartphone. Apple’s contention, supported with the many in the tech security industry, is that creating this tool creates a precedent. If the government is allowed to do this once, there will be reduced ability to fend off subsequent demands, essentially allowing the government to have a tool that allows them access to private information at will.

Furthermore, Apple’s contention is that, once created, the tool is essentially a corrupted version of their operating system. The government has been after such an operating system for years. If it were to be distributed into the regular population, it would be a tool that could be targeted by hackers and foreign powers to invade smartphones and steal their information.

The government’s contention is that encrypted smartphones can be safe havens for criminals. The idea is that being unable to access the information on a phone or mobile device critically hampers law enforcement’s ability to find information that could stop a crime or terrorist attack. The desired solution, however, is heavily resisted by those in the security tech community.

What Should You Think?

You should side with Apple. Yes, there is the possibility that terrorists and criminal will use the encryption technology on a device to evade law enforcement. That’s a possibility that can be found in every part of everyday life. Police can be evaded by driving a car or using pen and paper.

Regardless of the need to better information awareness, the government is asking for a tool that will fundamentally compromise security going forward for everyone who purchases a mobile device. Those insisting that the government can be trusted with this information do not have history on their side. Historically, the government has been hacked multiple times. Furthermore, the FBI, the same organization that wants this privacy-invading tool, has been caught abusing their authority with other surveillance measures. Simply put, the United States Government, with the FBI in particular, has not shown the ability to protect the public’s privacy, its own security, or show the ability to handle such power with consistent integrity.

Apple is by no means a saintly organization. The company is fighting the FBI to protect itself and its profits. In this case, however, the public’s interests and Apple’s interests coincide. The public should join security professionals in the industry and Apple in particular to resist the FBI’s demand to force Apple to build a hacking tool that they have not shown the ability to use responsibly.

Where to Go for More Information

About the author

Erik Hentell: I started out in theater before moving to graphic design. I eventually moved into web design while trying to expand my knowledge on software development. I currently work for a media company helping with their digital assets such as source code archives and ebooks.