By Lena Williams, Guild-CWA :: What began as a routine request from the FBI to Apple for help getting data from the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino terrorists has mushroomed into a heated legal battle over individual privacy rights and a moral debate about public responsibility.
Last Friday a federal judge ordered Apple to comply with the FBI’s request. Although the company has complied with thousands of similar requests from the FBI and other law enforcement agencies needing help opening locked phones or retrieving encrypted data, this time Apple refused.
Apple officials felt the company was becoming “an agent of law enforcement,” company lawyer Marc Zwillinger said.
“Customer data is under siege from a variety of different directions,” he said. “Never has the privacy and security of customer data been as important as it is now.”
It is a clash of titans: One of the world’s richest companies versus the nation’s premier law enforcement agency.
Despite a market value of more than $700 billion, Apple has positioned itself as a kind of David figure, a champion of the people, a protector of consumer privacy and security, a defender of civil liberties.
That casts the FBI, which has the support of the Obama administration, in the role of Goliath, a powerful giant defending a nation against threats to national security.
It has become a battle to win the hearts and minds of the American people, with both sides waging fierce public relations campaigns over the righteousness of their arguments.
By a slight margin, according to polls, Americans are siding with the Justice Department, which argues that Apple is more concerned with “its business model and public brand marketing strategy” than it is with privacy rights.
Pew Research found that 51 percent of Americans say Apple should unlock the phone to assist the FBI’s as it investigates the ties between the shooters, who killed 14 people, and Middle Eastern terrorists. But 38 percent said they side with Apple, with the remaining11 percent undecided.
Apple’s supporters rallied on Feb. 23 in 20 states to protest the court order and what they view as government persecution. At the same time, many other Americans are expressing concerns about threats to national security that terrorists could be using smartphones to plot.
And others still believe there must be a way for both sides to get what they want without compromising either privacy or national security.
I tend to fall in the category of those proposing a reasonable settlement that would limit the government’s reach to the case in question. It seems that Apple could devise a program that would give the FBI access to the locked encrypted iPhone used by Syed Farook, who planned and executed the attack in San Bernardino with his wife, Tashfeen Malik, without jeopardizing the privacy, personal data and information of the millions of consumers.
Over the years, the FBI, and other law enforcement agencies have asked Apple for help opening locked phones or obtaining encrypted data from one of the company’s products during the course of investigations. Apple officials say they comply with court orders to provide data if it is technically possible.
According to Apple executives, the company in 2015 provided data in response to more than 3,000 requests from U.S. law enforcement agencies and 7,100 requests from government agencies around the world.
It is troubling that Apple chose one of the most tragic moments in American history to take a stand. Some say the company’s position has placed them on the side of terrorists. I wouldn’t go that far. I truly believe Apple, which is known for its consumer-friendly reputation and social responsibility, wants to do the right thing.
It’s just that in this instance, it is on the wrong side of right.
In an email to Apple employees, Timothy D. Cook, the company’s chief executive who has described data privacy as a human rights issue, said unlocking the phone could set “a dangerous precedent that threatens everyone’s civil liberties.”
“This case is about much more than a single phone or a single investigation, so when we received the government’s order we knew we had to speak out,” Cook wrote. “As you know, we use encryption to protect our customers — whose data is under siege. We work hard to improve security with every software release because the threats are becoming more frequent and more sophisticated all the time.”
Cook has said unlocking Farook’s phone isn’t as easy as the Justice Department is making it out to be. Officials at Apple say they cannot break the encryption without a password. Too many wrong guesses and the phone automatically erases its memory. The FBI wants Apple to develop a program that allows for an unlimited combination of passwords until the right one works.
According to FBI officials that program would be used to unlock only the specific iPhone at the center of the San Bernardino investigation.
But Apple officials argue that once the program is made available to the FBI it would be exploited by hackers and could open the door for foreign governments like China, Apple’s second largest market, to demand similar anti-encryption programs for devices sold in the country.
Raman Jit Singh Chima, policy director at Access Now, a nonprofit that works for Internet freedoms, told The New York Times that the Apple case has global implications.
“The reality is the damage done when a democratic government does something like this is massive,” said Chima. “It’s even more negative in places where there are fewer freedoms.”
But if we engage in a game of what ifs, what if the iPhone of Farook contains the names of other accomplices who helped planned the attacks or information about other terrorists’ plots? In those scenarios, the damage to Apple’s reputation may be irreparable.
In his email to employees, Cook said that people “trust Apple to keep their data safe.”
That may be true. But the American people also put their trust in the government to keep them safe from domestic and foreign attacks.
Americans’ right to privacy will not be decided on this one case. But if unlocking one phone can save even one life then Apple should do it.