On Tuesday, a judge in California informed Apple that the company would be forced to unlock the iPhone of San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizwan Farook in order to aid the F.B.I.—due to encryption technology, the F.B.I. has been unable to unlock Farook’s iPhone 5c thus far.
According to the New York Times, “The ruling handed the F.B.I. a potentially important victory in its long-running battle with Apple and other Silicon Valley companies over the government’s ability to get access to encrypted data in investigations.”
Apple disagreed. In a letter published late Tuesday night, CEO Tim Cook called the ruling “chilling,” expressing that Apple has always been invested in the utmost privacy and data security of its users. The company would continue to fight for its users’ privacy and oppose the ruling.
Cook’s primary point of contention is that providing the F.B.I with an encryption key that bypasses major security features would create a “backdoor” to access user data, software “too dangerous to create” if it were to fall into the wrong hands.
Cook sees the threat in what could potentially occur after this instance: “The F.B.I. 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. And while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control.”
“In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks — from restaurants and banks to stores and homes,” he writes.
White House spokesperson John Earnest approached it differently, telling reports that, "[The F.B.I.] is simply asking for something that would have an impact on this one device."
To issue a court order for a private company to comply with the government and put its users at risk is also unprecedented. The California judge ruled in favor of the F.B.I. based on a loose interpretation of the All Writs Act of 1789, which “issue all writs necessary or appropriate in aid of their respective jurisdictions and agreeable to the usages and principles of law.” As Gizmodo puts it, this law has become “a favorite for government agencies trying to get tech companies to turn over user data.”
Cook believes if Apple gives in, it will set a “dangerous precedent” for government expansion of authority.
This is a pivotal moment in the relationship between private industry and the government, specifically as it applies to the safety of American citizens.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation weighed in on the situation, supporting Apple. It noted that, “Essentially, the government is asking Apple to create a master key so that it can open a single phone. And once that master key is created, we’re certain that our government will ask for it again and again, for other phones, and turn this power against any software or device that has the audacity to offer strong security.”
This battle between the needs of a private company and the government will indeed set a precedent for how involved the government can be in technology companies—it remains to be seen how the fight with Apple will play out.
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