An Apple a Day Keeps the FBI Away

By Aline Sredni & Amy Radlinski

Following the San Bernardino shootings in December 2015, a court order required Apple to aid the FBI in unlocking the encrypted iPhone of shooter Syed Farook[1]. While Apple released all data from the iCloud to the FBI, a court order to break the encryption was opposed by Apple. In response, Apple released a letter to the public stating that they consider the creation of a back-door to the iPhone “an unprecedented step that threatens the security of customers”[2] and would undermine years of security advancements. However, the FBI argues that the construction of this “master-key” would aid them in national security measures and may potentially lead to stopping future attacks. This blog will examine the pros and cons of the the removal of these current security features by providing examples that support that examine each case.

In the name of national security, the judge who issued the order called upon the All Writs Act of 1789, which justifies “all writs necessary or appropriate in aid of their respective jurisdictions and agreeable to the usages and principles of law”[3]. While not a subpoena, the All Writs Act implies that Apple must follow the law as long as it is not deemed unreasonable and can be justified. The FBI has made the argument that Apple is constantly writing new code and so the creation of the back door into encrypted devices is not an unjust burden to place on the company. The All Writs Act was also used to justify a Supreme Court case in 1977, which required third party phone companies to install a device which records numbers called from a specific phone. This case is being used as precedent for the current situation.[4] If Apple were to create this program for the FBI, it would shut off a setting which could erase the phone if the password is guessed incorrectly ten times. The FBI is looking specifically for the last month of data, which had not yet been uploaded to the iCloud and believes precedent already exists for Apple to create encryption code, and by doing so, the cooperation could help explain the actions of Syed Farook up until the shooting[5]. This has the potential to aid the national security effort by giving important information that could serve in uncovering future terrorist plots.

Cell phones are now, more than ever, an extension of the human body. Although the current case might target a single iPhone, the action the FBI is demanding could affect us all. The current encryptions on our phones are in place for our protection. If these encryptions become compromised, it could place any iPhone owners’ personal security at risk. Although the FBI states that the new technology would solely be used for this one case, Tim Cook states in an open letter that “ there is no way to guarantee such control”[6] because once developed, this system could be reused in multiple devices. Moreover, we have to take into account the possibility of foreign governments either acquiring this software or demanding Apple to allow them to use it. Nowadays, the majority of iPhone sale are overseas, and the current encryptions protect people such as political dissidents as well as individuals fighting against oppressive governments. It is important to remember that the majority of these other countries do not offer the same protections to its citizens as the U.S. constitution does, and therefore, in the hands of some of these governments, the power of this software could result in total privacy breaches. Lastly, what if this system is obtained by terrorists and they become able to spy on people? Not only would our personal privacy be compromised, but so would our national security.  In an age where we have a cyber life as well as a physical one, we should be doing anything possible in order to guarantee our protection from hackers and cybercriminals. The government should not be able to demand that a private company creates a software for their own use, especially one that sets cybersecurity and personal privacy in a dangerous precedent.