The FBI Needs Apple’s Help Fighting Terrorism. Should the Tech Giant Give In?
It’s no secret that Apple’s iPhone has become the default choice in smartphone technology for the majority of the world’s mobile-carrying population. As it becomes more and more commonplace, the phone’s role in everyday life will continue to permeate much more than conversations about its effectiveness in helping us complete daily tasks like shopping, organizing, and communicating. In particular, its role in more taboo practices – like sex trafficking, stalking, and terrorism – has become the subject of much discussion about where benign consumer products end and harmful tools for vice begin. Just this week, the relationship between cell phones and public safety once again became a trending topic across social media as news relating back to last year’s deadly terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California hit news media and the internet. Essentially, it came to light that FBI investigators looking into the behavioral history of the two shooters in the attack have hit a wall in their ability to ascertain what – if any- connections the perpetrators have to global terrorist organizations. That wall is a passcode on an iPhone that is believed to contain pertinent information and since the code is seemingly impenetrable, the government has begun to ask Apple for help in cracking the case.
According to the New York Times, negotiations between the tech giant and President Obama’s intelligence advisers have been underway for many weeks, but there seems to be a stalemate at play which is preventing a resolution. Apple has been resisting the FBI’s requests for help in decrypting the security measures on the phone in question, and as reporters Eric Lichtblau and Katie Benner write, battle lines have been drawn. On Apple’s resistance they write “[w]hen the talks collapsed, a federal magistrate judge, at the Justice Department’s request, ordered Apple to bypass security functions on the phone. The order set off a furious public battle on Wednesday between the Obama administration and one of the world’s most valuable companies in a dispute with far-reaching legal implications.” It is no surprise that Apple – perhaps the world’s most coveted brand – would one day find itself embroiled in a very public display of national security versus privacy, but the unfolding story is nonetheless fascinating and speaks directly to a very unique layer of life in today’s hyper-connected world.
To much of the public’s great joy, Apple CEO Tim Cook responded with a “blistering, 1,100-word letter to Apple customers, warning of the ‘chilling’ breach of privacy posed by the government’s demands.” In a powerful act of government resistance not often seen in the world of corporate America, Cook’s open letter “maintained that the order would effectively require it to create a ‘backdoor’ to get around its own safeguards, and Apple vowed to appeal the ruling by next week.” Furthermore, he called out the glaring hypocrisy he sees in the government’s demand. “The same engineers who built strong encryption into the iPhone to protect our users would, ironically, be ordered to weaken those protections and make our users less safe,” he wrote. Despite his stern condemnation, Cook likely faces a fierce battle with the government’s omnipotent status in legal affairs, but a certain air of David versus Goliath has begun to encircle the story, albeit a bit ironically (after all, how can Apple – the giant of the tech industry – possibly be considered the underdog?). However, there may be more hope for David’s victory than one might think. As Lichtblau and Benner say, “[l]ate last year, Mr. Obama refused to back any legislation requiring decryption, leaving a court fight likely.”
So much of the discussion around our use of technology places us as the victims – mindless drones who look to our mobile phones for help doing everything. And surely much of that criticism is deserved. However, this story is effectively arguing that regardless of how we choose to use our personal tech, that is for us to decide and us to know. Even if you’re a terrorist.