Apple Inc. v The FBI: Should Apple build a backdoor to the iPhone?


Apple’s refusal to engineer a backdoor into the iPhone has now escalated to the point at which even its own engineers are refraining from working on the operating system in case they are bullied into helping the Department of Justice. The outrage is so deep rooted that some are even threatening to leave the company. At the very heart of the legal battle is the San Bernardino massacre that took place on the 2nd of December 2015 where Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik shot 14 people to death and wounded 22 others at a work event for the Department of Public Health. Once the FBI investigated the Farook family home in Redlands, they uncovered three phones. Out of three phones, only one was intact and useable which happened to Farook’s work phone- the terrorists had crushed the rest in a bid to hide intelligence.

The phone that was still intact was an iPhone 5C running the latest version of iOS but in order for Forensics to uncover the data, they would need a four digit passcode. Thus ensued a guessing game where the stakes were a lot higher than usual as the phone was set to erase itself after 10 wrong tries. To make matters worse, Farook had not backed up his phone to the iCloud since October so that data was out of date and effectively useless. All the data was still in the phone and nobody had the passcode- Farook was dead, the County whom the phone belonged to did not have it either and surprisingly enough, Apple did not have a way around the passcode either. Things took a turn for the worse when the FBI reset the iCloud password and once reset, the cloud will not back itself up without the original passcode. Now, the FBI had no choice but to find out the four digit passcode from a pool of 10,000 possibilities. Consequently, communications between Apple and the FBI got more and more heated until the Bureau resorted to getting a court order under the All Writs Act 1789 which compelled Apple to construct a separate operating system which would override the current one so that intelligence could be extracted. Tim Cook, Chief Executive Officer at Apple, publicly announced his disapproval in an open letter to customers last February. He expressed the potential danger of creating massive security issues and hackers; it would be opening the floodgates to a whole range of Government requests which would further compromise the privacy and security that Apple prides itself upon giving customers. The Apple legal team also weighed by stating that court order against the company exceeded the powers granted under the All Writs Act 1789 as it was forcing the company to develop, test and deploy the software.
Steve Wozniak, the Co-Founder of Apple, also spoke against court order in a recent appearance on the late night talk show- Conan. “Twice in my life I wrote things that could have been viruses. I threw away every bit of source code.” He said. “I just got a chill inside. These are dangerous, dangerous things, and if some code gets written in an Apple product that lets people in, bad people are going to find their way to it, very likely.” He also touched on the issue of personal liberties and the importance of preserving the level of privacy that everyone is entitled to. It was also significant that he mentioned that there was no solid proof that the data on the phone is of much importance as the FBI claim.

Apple is an international company, providing services to millions of people around the globe- if they give into the FBI’s requests, they will eventually have to give into even more dangerous requests coming from countries like Russia and China. Essentially, giving into this request will have a ripple effect of bigger and more controversial demands that may compromise security and privacy of customers even further. The state should accept that there is a natural limit to what they can ask and expect from companies and if indeed the phone did contain any important information, surely it would have suffered the same fate of the other two phones.


Photo credit: Flickr // r.g-s

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