Apple, Federal government divided over individual privacy

Photo courtesy of MYIGADGET.COM


For the past month, Apple has been locked in a great battle over security and the law with the Federal government, as questions of privacy once again edge themselves into the forefront of the national conversation.

Apple CEO Tim Cook released a letter to the public on Feb. 16 detailing his and Apple’s opposition to a Federal district court order demanding the creation of a “backdoor” – software that could unlock and break the encryption on the iPhone owned by Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the gunmen involved in the tragic Dec. 2 attacks at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino.

Citing concerns over the right to privacy and addressing fears of government surveillance, Apple has strongly opposed the court order, which, according to Cook, constitutes a serious, unprecedented extension of the All Writs Act of 1789, which allows the courts to issue any warrants and writs necessary to aid in cases of investigation.

There are two ways to unlock an iPhone. The first is the method most everyone is familiar with—the personal code that iPhone users can create to type in every time their phone locks. Apple offers an option that completely wipes all records from the iPhone after 10 failed attempts to login. Federal investigators have struggled with this option: they are unaware whether Farook enabled this option on his iPhone, and are unwilling to risk the deletion of information. The second method involves the use of a device-specific key, one that is imprinted upon each iPhone’s iOS system when it is made. It is this code that United States district courts have been calling for Apple to unlock.

Two schools of thought are fighting to claim victory over this war of privacy. Since the Sept. 11 attacks 15 years ago, the Federal government has vastly expanded its investigative powers through the USA Patriot Act of 2001, which, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), has “made it easier for the government to spy on ordinary Americans by expanding the authority to monitor phone and email communications, collect bank and credit reporting records and track the activity of innocent Americans on the Internet.” This was infamously revealed in 2013 by the whistle-blower Edward Snowden, who published thousands of leaked documents to The Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald.

However, such actions are conceded by both politicians and citizens alike to be necessary in times of war. The government faces a difficult choice: attempting to protect the lives of all American citizens and take any actions necessary to maintain protection. On the other hand, there comes a time when citizens must stand up and ensure that personal information belonging to them and them only is not “up for grabs” by any entity, governmental or otherwise. Encryption is important: it is what keeps records of not only everyday citizens safe, but those of business, banks, hospitals and government agencies.

It is important to realize that much of the current hysteria and controversy over Snowden’s revelations are perhaps greatly exaggerated. The leaks, while illuminating and necessary for Americans to consider what their government has collected, do not seem to be as dangerous and harmful to citizens as expected. Most information is encrypted and aggregated; it is unlikely that specific, important pieces of information: a phone number, for example, or a certain email, were searched for or investigated by government agencies on a grand scale. This is not to say it has not happened; the threat to individual privacy is still there, but it seems to be very minimal in comparison to the hysteria built up around the event.

The federal government has stressed that they would use Apple’s capabilities for investigative purposes only. President Obama has emphasized that the FBI and other organizations are acting in the best interests of the nation, saying, “I am of the view that there are very real reasons why we want to make sure the government cannot just willy-nilly get into everyone’s iPhones or smartphones that are full of very personal information or very personal data.” While it is to be expected and applauded by citizens that the government is trying its utmost to keep Americans safe while working within the law, the extent to which they are requiring Apple to redesign their entire security network for the sake of one phone is worrying.

The Apple side has countered that breaking open the iPhone security firewall is a very threat to decades of research and innovation in cybersecurity. To break open the iPhone is to break open the lives of millions, and this is hardly an exaggeration. Everything we collect about our lives: photos, numbers, emails, notes, calendars, schedules, messages—all are hidden within the metal frames and the chips that make up our cell phones.

It is an issue of principle that we face, and one that will continue to be more and more at issue as technology becomes more nuanced and integral to our 21st century lives.

One comment

  • Quite a nice piece on analysis……..But,It is the government promise that is scary……”.we only want to do it for this case and then we would only use it when vital to the natural defense”…………Anyone who believes that lives in a fantasy world. This may be one of the most important issues of the new age…………..

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