In what would otherwise be an uneventful news week, save for Donald Trump and the Pope getting into a bizarre spat, Apple and the FBI butted heads in the court of public opinion over digital privacy, encryption, and the role tech companies should play in helping law enforcement agencies do their job.
As you’ve likely already heard by now, the FBI wants Apple’s help in accessing the iPhone 5c used by one of the San Bernardino terrorists involved in a mass shooting that left 14 people dead and many more injured this past December. Specifically, the FBI wants Apple to write a special piece of software that would bypass the iPhone’s built-in security mechanism which is designed to wipe a phone clean after 10 failed passcode attempts. With such a piece of software in hand, the FBI would be able to apply brute force methods to access the device and presumably access critical information for their investigation.
Apple, however, was quick to respond in the form of a scathing letter from Tim Cook. In a letter posted to Apple’s website, Cook drew a line in the sand and said that Apple helping the FBI out in this regard would create a dangerous precedent.
“Specifically, the FBI wants us to make a new version of the iPhone operating system, circumventing several important security features, and install it on an iPhone recovered during the investigation,” Cook wrote. “In the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession.”
Naturally, the FBI’s demand for Apple’s help – which was accompanied by a court order – along with Apple’s steadfast refusal to comply prompted a firestorm of debate surrounding a whole host of important and complex issues.
Without addressing the merits of each side’s point of view, it’s interesting to note that Apple initially wanted to keep this entire issue under wraps, and seemingly shielded from public view.
According to a recent article in The New York Times, Apple initially wanted the FBI to make the filing containing its request for Apple’s assistance under seal. The FBI, however, opted not to.
Apple had asked the F.B.I. to issue its application for the tool under seal. But the government made it public, prompting Mr. Cook to go into bunker mode to draft a response, according to people privy to the discussions, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The result was the letter that Mr. Cook signed on Tuesday, where he argued that it set a “dangerous precedent” for a company to be forced to build tools for the government that weaken security.
Far from backing down from the fight, Mr. Cook has told colleagues that he still stands by the company’s longstanding plans to encrypt everything stored on Apple’s myriad devices, services and in the cloud, where the bulk of data is still stored unencrypted.
It will be incredibly interesting to see how this all plays out. The most recent news is that Apple was granted an extension by the court, so it now has a bit more time to file its formal refusal.