Government vs. Tech Companies: Over Encryption Crippling Safety

By Chris Szul

On December 2, 2015, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik killed 14 civilians at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California. Both of the perpetrators were killed in an ensuing shootout. Three hours later, law enforcement executed a search warrant on the house where the couple lived. During the search, they had discovered an iPhone 5C that belonged to Syed Farook. The FBI had reason to believe that there are messages on the iPhone that connects the couple to a larger terrorist organization; however, the phones are programmed to erase data after multiple failed attempts to unlock the device. In order to avoid this, the FBI reached out Apple for their assistance in unlocking the phone, but Apple is unable to do so because they do not have access to their own encryption system. Apple was then requested by the FBI to create a new operating system that would allow them to have access to the contents of the phone. Apple subsequently refused to do what the FBI requested[1]. The result was a court case between the FBI and Apple.

The months following the beginning of the court case, the Silicon Valley giants, such as Google and Facebook, have revamped their encryption systems for their own messaging services. Google is planning on investing more effort into its encrypted email system and Facebook is allowing voice calls to be encrypted over its WhatsApp service [2]. However, this increased encryption comes with a price: law enforcement is having a harder time following people with malicious intents. During a hearing held by the US House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte stated that “As technology companies have made great strides to enhance the security of Americans’ personal and private information, law enforcement agencies face new challenges when attempting to access encrypted information…Congress should fully examine the issue to be sure those are in place while finding ways to help law enforcement fight crime and keep us safe.”[3]. With the heightened encryption by the major American software companies, people will be able to have more privacy and keep their personal information hidden from prying eyes. However, the federal government is going to need to put in more effort to protect American citizens from both domestic and international threats due to this level of encryption. The best course of action is to have these encryptions be sophisticated and hard to break into, but also have the companies that are operating the services have the option to access the messages sent over their messaging services. This will allow customers to have privacy from people trying to see their personal information while still allowing government agencies to have immediate access to time sensitive information.

The increased encryption to the point where hosting companies cannot access their own consumer has added an unpredicted hazard — spreading information by a third ­party. On March 21, the FBI reached out to a third party company to extract the information from the iPhone 5C, as the company showed a possible way to unlock the iPhone [4]. On March 28, the FBI was able to unlock the iPhone and gather the information inside of the phone without the assistance of Apple and ended their legal actions against the company [5]. Since the FBI was able to find a third party that was able to break through the encryption system that was previously impossible to get through by Apple, that means that the there is a flaw in the encryption system that is used on the iOS mobile operating system. This makes the encryption worthless since it can be cracked by a third party, but this situation made it worse because both the FBI and Apple were unable to crack through the encryption system. This means that determined people will still be able get pass the encryption and see people’s personal information.

The December 2nd terrorist attack not only led to the death of 14 civilians, but began an increasing division between the US government and private technology companies. The US government is focused on protecting the people of the nation while private tech companies are trying to protect the privacy of the people of the nation. Neither of the two groups are extreme in their views though, as they both believe that having privacy and protection are important for the nation. The coming years will determine if the two parties will be able to come together to work towards a common goal or if they will grow farther apart from each other.


1 Balakrishnan, A. (2016, February 18). Confused? What you need to know on Apple vs. FBI. Retrieved April 01, 2016, from­about­apple­and­the­fbi­what­you­need­to­know.html

2 Yadron, D. (2016, March 14). Facebook, Google and WhatsApp plan to increase encryption of user data. Retrieved April 01, 2016, from­google­whatsapp­plan­increase­encryption­f bi­apple

3 House Judiciary Committee to Hold Hearing on Encryption ­ House Judiciary Committee. (2016, February 25). Retrieved April 01, 2016, from­release/house­judiciary­committee­to­hold­hearing­on­encryption/

4 CBS/AP. (2016, March 21). FBI may have found way to unlock San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone. Retrieved April 01, 2016, from­may­have­found­way­to­unlock­san­bernardino­shooters­iphone/

5 Date, J., Levine, M., & Newcomb, A. (2016, March 28). Justice Department Withdraws Request in Apple iPhone Encryption Case After FBI Accesses San Bernardino Shooter’s Phone. Retrieved April 01, 2016, from­department­withdraws­request­apple­iphone­encryption­case/stor y?id=37986428