To Hack or Not to Hack? Apple and the San Bernadino iPhone
Thu, February 18, 2016
San Bernardino terrorists Tashfeen Malik (left) and Syed Rizwan Farook
Apple is fighting against a federal court that ordered the company to provide software for the FBI to unlock California terrorist Syed Rizwan Farook’s iPhone.
Farook, along with his wife Tashfeen Malik, killed 14 people in December 2015 in San Bernadino in a shooting rampage. Both were eventually killed in a shootout with police.
The FBI wants access to Farook’s phone to try to recreate the time immediately after the attack until they were cornered and killed to see if they had accomplices and, thus, to prevent any future attacks.
The court ordered Apple to provide software to bypass Farook’s work-issued phone that is encrypted with software to erase the phone’s data after 10 unsuccessful attempts to enter the phone’s password.
Below, Clarion Project offers the reader two compelling arguments: the case in favor of the court’s rulings and the case in favor of Apple’s objection. The result of our poll on the issue is published at the bottom of this item.
The Case Against Apple’s Objection
The government’s request of Apple is above all for the purpose of saving lives in the future, a value that stands above others, including the right to privacy.
Commenting on the court’s decision, New York Police Department Commissioner Bill Bratton rightly said, “The right to privacy is not a total right in the sense that if it is being used for criminal purposes, that’s where the courts come into play.”
All the more so when it comes to terrorism and its devastating effect on society and the individual lives it destroys in its wake.
Although the court specifically ordered Apple to create special software to unlock Farook’s iPhone, it also ordered that software to be designed with a “unique identifier” so it could not be used to unlock other iPhones.
Nevertheless, Apple claims the court order sets a dangerous precedent, creating a “backdoor” into the device that is used across the world to store data ranging from bank accounts to embarrassingly-private photos.
In our technological age, we can reasonably assume someone will eventually create the technology to unlock iPhones. The question can be asked as to why the government, when lives are at stake, should be denied access to the same technology that may end up in the hands of terrorists to foist on us their bloody agenda?
America is country that operates on checks and balances, from the constitution to the courts and between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. The reason the government was designed in such a way was to prevent the “slippery slope” that leads to abuse of power.
It is reasonable to assume in this case that similar orders in the future would not be issued in an environment lacking due process that would prevent large-scale abuse. It is also reasonable to assume that just as Apple has continually updated and improved its products, it will continue to stay ahead of the game vis-à-vis the security systems on those same devices.
Similar court orders in the future might then require product-specific software, thus decreasing the possibility of wide-scale abuse by the government.
Having Big Brother looking over our shoulder is never an ideal way to live. But if we occasionally have to put up with the intrusion, it’s worth it to stay alive.
The Case in Favor of Apple’s Objection
The court ruling that Apple must create a backdoor route to hack into iPhones is a body blow to the right to privacy in America, unless Apple is successful in overturning it.
“In the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession,” Apple CEO Tim Cook told Apple customers. “The government suggests this tool could only be used once, on one phone. But that’s simply not true. Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices.”
Government powers are rarely only used for the thing for which they were first acquired. This new technique will not merely be used in this one instance to open the iPhone of a dead terrorist, but empower the government to hack iPhones at will.
Although that power is targeted at terrorists today, there is no telling what uses future governments will make of the technology. Cases in point: Barack Obama’s White House has been accused of using the IRS to persecute conservative groups; disgraced former president Richard Nixon bugged the Watergate Hotel in order to spy on his political enemies. Future presidents could quite easily use these technologies to monitor and persecute whichever group they choose for whatever reason.
Furthermore, there is no reason to assume this technology would remain in the hands of America. What would prevent authoritarian states like Saudi Arabia and Iran from gaining access to this technology, using their own court orders to force Apple to hand it over or banning all Apple products from their countries? Is the government certain this technology will remain under lock and key and not fall into the hands of non-state actors who could then access the iPhones of government officials?
Finally, there is a more idealistic reason to oppose this ruling. The fight against Islamist extremism is a fight to protect the values of freedom and democracy. If, in fighting that battle, we give our own governments the tools to monitor and spy on us will have lost.
Even if we are victorious, we will have simply exchanged one set of tyrants for another.
We put both sides of the issue to a public vote - here's the result:
Meira Svirsky is the editor of ClarionProject.org
Elliot Friedland is a research fellow at Clarion Project.