The FBI vs. Apple and the Future of Mobile Security

by Jeff Wiener on February 19, 2016

25069002066_266cbe9ed3_o-930x510As paradigm-altering, industry-changing (heck, world-changing) stories go, there have been few with greater ramifications for the future of our digital existence than the news that a California court has issued an order to compel Apple to open up its iPhone iOS to the FBI.

As we wrote yesterday, the case revolves around the smartphone of one of the shooters involved in the tragic San Bernardino massacre in December, an event that left 14 people dead and many others wounded. We discovered this week that even after two months the FBI has been unable to crack the encryption on an iPhone owned by one of the shooters, and is now looking to the courts to force Apple to assist in cracking the encryption.

Of course things become far more complicated when you realize that Apple can’t just provide access, for it has relinquished any role as encryption gatekeeper to avoid such ethical dilemmas in the first place.

But consider this a declaration of war, one that we’ve seen brewing around the world for quite some time now, and the results could be potentially catastrophic for the mobile security industry, the tech industry, and, let’s not forget, smartphone users in general.

Throughout this entire ongoing saga it seems the underlying argument from government and law enforcement agencies is that such unbreakable encryption standards shouldn’t be available to the general public because they’re unnecessary. Most of us don’t need to protect our data to that extent because, in general, it’s innocuous enough that hackers and/or Big Brother don’t care about it much.

Now a few short years ago I likely would have agreed with such reasoning, we should reserve the high level security for things that are, well, really important, and we should give law enforcement agencies the ability to gain warranted, legal access to the data they need to keep us safe. Then along came Edward Snowden and the PRISM scandal and we realized that innocuous or not, law enforcement and intelligence agencies were illegally collecting massive amounts of our data anyways, undermining the entire claim that our own personal privacy isn’t at stake.

Can we then blame Apple for responding to a very real request among the smartphone-using public, that everyone needs secure encryption to protect the information that they each individually deem important? Simply put, the government, FBI, and the intelligence community has made this mess, perhaps they shouldn’t be able to legislate their way out of it.

But of course that is exactly what’s happening, and by attempting to compel Apple to create a backdoor into its secure iOS encryption, the government is not only robbing Silicon Valley of a growing multi-billion dollar encryption business, it might be toppling Apple’s mobile empire altogether, for creating such backdoors (particularly if after Tim Cook’s vehement protests the company is forced to do so anyway) will undoubtedly shake consumer confidence in a product that, let’s face it, is likely already poised for a downturn regardless of this mess.

Now back to Apple for a minute. According to some analysts, what the courts have ordered Apple to do—to ostensibly create a new iOS with backdoors in place—is “technically feasible,” although like Cook has said, such a thing is both overly burdensome and counter-productive. In fact, I can’t think of any other case, at least in recent history, where a company has been ordered to effectively hamstring its own business to assist law enforcement. It seems to be almost unprecedented.

Simply put, this story isn’t about one iPhone, it’s about setting a dangerous precedent for the entire mobile security industry going forward, one where companies are no longer able to give consumers the security they’re asking for, and where consumer confidence is the security of their mobile devices is shaken to its very core.

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