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Applauding Apple’s audacity

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Which is more important: cyber security or national security? That’s essentially the question being raised by an ongoing legal dispute between Apple and the FBI, a debate that has been spilling into the court of public opinion. Tech companies are largely siding with Apple, while law enforcement picks the FBI—and everyday citizens are caught in the middle.

The fight concerns an iPhone belonging to one of the two married perpetrators of December’s San Bernardino mass shooting, which left 14 dead and 22 seriously injured. Due to encryption on the phone, authorities investigating the attack are unable to access the most recent data stored on the phone, which they say could potentially reveal other accomplices in the attack or future terrorist plots. The FBI has requested Apple’s assistance in unlocking the device. Apple, however, has refused to comply with the orders, arguing that to do so would set a dangerous precedent.

In a public letter, Apple CEO Tim Cook clarified the reasons for their decision. Though the company condemned the terrorist attack and offered their full cooperation with the investigation, they objected to demands that they undermine their own security system by unlocking the phone.

According to Cook, deencrypting an iPhone is not as simple as picking a physical lock, for example. What the FBI is asking Apple to do is to design and install onto the phone an altered version of iOS with certain security features disabled—a “master key,” so to speak, which could be potentially used to unlock any encrypted Apple device. This is something that doesn’t currently exist and something Apple has previously vowed never to create.

In other words, it’s not like Apple is being asked to hand anything over, they’re being asked to build something entirely from scratch. As Cook explains, once created, such a program could be duplicated and used to bypass security measures on any Apple device.

Smart phones today contain an incredible amount of sensitive personal data. If such a program were to fall into the wrong hands, hackers and criminals could potentially gain access to your private pictures and messages, financial information and health records, even your location.

Of course, there are compelling reasons to support the FBI’s case. In San Bernardino, the long-feared specter of homegrown terrorism suddenly became a reality. In a country that is constantly under threat, it is harder than ever for authorities to monitor suspected terrorists and prevent horrific attacks from occurring. Some would say that surrendering a little digital privacy is simply the price of living in safety. Besides, as the common refrain goes, why should you have anything to fear, unless you have something to hide?

However, there are a number of reasons for ordinary citizens to be wary of the government’s request. Though the FBI insisted it would limit its use to this particular phone, in the event it prevails in court, it has already requested assistance in unlocking nine other phones in unrelated cases. In addition, other law enforcement agencies across the country have claimed to have hundreds of encrypted phones in storage, waiting to be unlocked. The majority of these instances have absolutely nothing to do with terrorism or public safety.

As leaked NSA documents have revealed, the U.S. government has few misgivings about spying on its own citizens. But the problem of federal abuse of power goes back much further, predating even the digital era. In the ‘50s, at the behest of J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI conducted surveillance on many non-criminal, political entities, including suspected Communists, members of the Black Panther party and even Martin Luther King, Jr. and his associates.

The importance of cyber security is something that most people hardly understand and scarcely worry about. But as NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden said, “Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.”

We’d like to take a minute to exercise both of our rights and say: Thank you, Apple.

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Applauding Apple’s audacity