Apple Vows to Fight Court Order to Unlock iPhone Encryption

by Matt Klassen on February 18, 2016

encyrptionSo far the ongoing mobile encryption debate has really been a fight involving little more than hypotheticals, as Silicon Valley and law enforcement agencies have jockeyed back and forth with hyperbolic superlatives over the respective dangers of providing backdoors into mobile operating systems and the looming disaster of not providing them. The largely theoretical nature of this debate has left many wondering exactly what encryption has to do with every day life, confused about exactly what’s at stake.

All that changed this week as a California court ordered Apple to unlock the iPhone of one of the attackers in the tragic San Bernardino shooting in December, an order that Apple has vowed to resist, and one that has sparked outrage on both sides of this debate.

It should come as no surprise that many now question Apple’s strict encryption stance, wondering why the Cupertino company would resist assisting law enforcement agencies in such a clearly justified case, while Apple and other privacy proponents continue to argue that even if they could help, creating such backdoor access to encrypted software would ultimately do far more damage than good. Where do you stand?

There are two important factors at play here that help define this ongoing encryption debate: the willingness of tech companies like Apple to assist government and law enforcement agencies in stopping criminal activity, and the ability of tech companies to help in that fight.

Up until now law enforcement, particularly the FBI, has attacked Apple and other tech companies over the issue of willingness, and while I’ll fully admit that these companies don’t like handing over the private data of their users, most evidence suggests that when data requests are made through the appropriate legal channels, Apple and its tech cohorts assist when they can.

“[W]e have worked hard to support the government’s efforts to solve this horrible crime. We have no sympathy for terrorists,” said Apple CEO Tim Cook in a letter to customers Tuesday, explaining that the company had complied with all valid subpoenas and search warrants and “offered our best ideas on a number of investigative options at their disposal.”

But this is where things get tricky, for as a way of making sure that they can’t actually assist in those data and access requests, Apple and Google primarily have created encryption standards that remove the ability for the tech companies themselves to get access, even if they wanted to.

“For many years, we have used encryption to protect our customers’ personal data because we believe it’s the only way to keep their information safe,” wrote Cook. “We have even put that data out of our own reach, because we believe the contents of your iPhone are none of our business.”

It is this point that seems to confuse most bystanders in this debate, as even Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has railed against Apple for its unwillingness to help access the phone of one of the San Bernardino shooters. “To think that Apple won’t allow us to get into her cellphone? Who do they think they are? No, we have to open it,” Trump told Fox and Friends this morning per a report from Politico.

But as I mentioned, things are a little more complicated than that, for what government, courts, and law enforcement agencies are asking for is not simply access [that can’t be given after all], but an entirely new operating system, one designed with backdoors in place, and that’s something that Apple just can’t abide.

“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,” said Cook. “In the wrong hands, this software—which does not exist today—would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession. The FBI may use different words to describe this tool, but make no mistake: Building a version of iOS that bypasses security in this way would undeniably create a backdoor. ”

So to summarize, about the only way Apple could help investigators crack the iPhone of one of the terrorists involved in the San Bernardino shooting would be to design a new iOS with built-in backdoors, and Apple thinks such a request is onerous, unwarranted and ultimately dangerous. For a debate that has for several years now largely existed in the realm of the hypothetical, consider this the real-world introduction to the thorny issue of mobile encryption, a controversy that’s clearly just getting started.

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Written by: Matt Klassen. Follow by: RSS, Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube.

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