By now we probably have all heard about the ongoing court case between Apple and the FBI about the iPhone of the San Bernardino shooter. The iPhone was locked with a passcode and had an auto-erase security measure put in place in which the contents of the device is rendered unreadable after 10 failed passcode entries. The FBI have put up a court case against Apple requesting their help with the decryption of the device by making a less secure version of iOS that bypasses that auto-erase. What we need to realize is that neither side is being particularly truthful and forthright but supporting Apple is still the right decision. The situation is not as simple as the FBI puts it and it is important to remember that privacy is extremely important in the digital age, as every tiny bit of security weakened, means that hackers have an easier way in.
First, the FBI says that only Apple has the necessary means to break open the San Bernardino shooters iPhone. This is probably not true as many security experts have weighed in, saying that there is no practical purpose other than setting a precedent. Precedents are very commonly used in various court cases and the public fear that this could be used in other cases involving locked iPhones. And according to Edward Snowden, the notion that only Apple has the capabilities to unlock the phone is “bullshit”. So the FBI is not being entirely truthful, and again it’s about setting precedents which could also be used in authoritarian regimes.
The main reason to side with Apple on this would simply be privacy, you would not want hackers an easy way into your photos or text messages. The FBI has gotten an All Writs Act order for Apple to assist with investigations. An exception to the All Writs Act in which if successfully invoked would be that assisting would cause Apple an ‘unreasonable burden’. Which is actually understandable as it would make iOS less secure and could cause trust issues and hurt sales. Apple is definitely using this as a marketing tool, as evident with their customer letter. This brings back to the age old debate (well old compared to the lifespan of technology) of backdoors and, yes they can prove useful in a government investigation. But not all governments are equally transparent, for example, it would seriously cause alarm if this ‘backdoor-ed’ iOS lands in an authoritarian regime such as China or even Russia.
It is important to remember that this is not just one isolated case in an extreme circumstance. It has been revealed that the FBI is also waiting to crack open more than 10 more iPhones. So it is obvious that unlocking one phone would set a dangerous precedent, and that this would harm everybody using Apple devices as this conceivably could also apply to OS X’s FileVault.