The FBI has called upon Apple to unlock one of the cell phones of the San Bernardino shooters. The request deals in the areas of national security, violation of first amendment rights, and terrorist activity. The issue has drawn public attention due to the privacy threats and security violations it poses, but despite that, the FBI wants Apple to create an access method. Apple has yet to comply. Asking the technology company to undermine its own security software could give governments around the world the idea to follow the same course of action.
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Apple responds to the FBI
The United States government has repeatedly put pressure on Apple to unlock phones or provide data in the name of criminal investigations and prosecution. The technology company is working to protect its First Amendment rights in an attempt to avert creating custom code designed to allow the government easy access to iPhone user data.
Apple has responded to the issue that surfaced on February 16th, 2016. Magistrate Judge Sheri Pymof ordered Apple to assist the FBI with accessing the iPhone that belonged to one of the shooters, Syed Rizwan Farook. He is one of two killers involved in the San Bernardino mass shooting that occurred in December. Reuters is the publication that reported the story.
Apple received at least 11 orders from the United States District Courts under the All Writs Act of 1789. All of the orders were objected to or challenged. Legally speaking, the orders that the government has requested would violate the Constitution if honored. Apple also has to deal with at least 12 additional demands from the Department of Justice to access iPhones.
The government wants Apple to extract data from cell phones such as calls, photos, and contacts from iPhones operating on iOS 7 and older. These data are requested in order to assist with criminal investigations. Apple’s code is constitutionally protected speech, but the government is trying to compel Apple to write new code that would allow them to access to the phone’s data. This is essentially a violation of Apple’s First Amendment rights.
Whose security will be violated?
If Apple loses this case, an extraordinary number of security violations will take place. This code change would affect past, current, and future users of iPhones. Defeating Apple’s security would set a dangerous precedent. The sheer numbers of people who would be sabotaged by this change are unparalleled.
This case is so much larger than accessing the phone of one of the San Bernardino shooters. If the government’s requests are honored, hundreds of millions of iPhones will be affected. The case would essentially create a backdoor that undercuts the security and privacy of hundreds of millions of people. Just by way of example, there were 2.6 million iPhone 5c units sold. In addition, there were more than 10.7 million iPhone 5s phones sold. Of the basic iPhone 5 model, there were 91 million units sold. All of these users would be affected by this case by having government surveillance capabilities engineered into their phones without obtaining warrants or other requirements of the rule of law.
Innocent, law-abiding people will be exposed to privacy and security threats from their own government. There are still millions of other iPhone models that have been sold, and more than 5.1 million iPhone 5 units sold within the first 2 months of availability. When Apple began offering the iPhone 4s, they sold one million units within the first day. The iPhone 4 received 600,000 preorders in only 24 hours. In the first 24 hours of selling the iPhone 5, there were 2 million preorders for the unit. Apple sold the smallest volume of the basic iPhone model, but that still amounted to more than a quarter of a million or 270,000 units.
The case affects a startling range of users that includes buyers from of the first iPhone and purchasers all subsequent models up to the iPhone iOS 7. If the case goes through and Apple is forced to honor the government’s request, it will likely set a precedent for other countries. Just as the U.S. government is trying to use its muscle to get Apple to comply, other countries will probably attempt the strategy. The U.S. government is not the only entity that would take advantage of backdoor access to hundreds of millions of iPhones.
Most Apple iPhone units are now sold outside the United States. This means that many other countries will be affected if Apple writes new iPhone code that the government could access. Saudi Arabia, the U.K., and the People’s Republic of China could demand access to the software as well. This would allow restrictive and repressive foreign governments to use the tool against the United States.
Human rights lawyer Carly Nyst has stated that governments will “see this as a blank check of legitimacy.” She also described the case as “groundbreaking.” This means that several other countries will request the same privileges. If the FBI wins this case, they will have won backdoor access to a custom built iOS system that hundreds of millions of people around the world are using based on its resistance to security threats.
Authoritative governments such as China and Russia will certainly demand access to the same data that the United States is requesting should Apple lose this case. It has been conjectured that if foreign countries can access this coded software, they may hunt enemies who are American, and even members of the American government could be blackmailed and compromised. Terrorists could hack and use the software code to gain sensitive data about NSA and FBI members, increasing the dangers of terrorist threats and attacks against citizens.
This is not the first time a technology company has been requested to undermine its user’s privacy because of law enforcement and national security pressures. These “national security concerns” are widely used to accomplish government prerogatives. China has had an issue with Apple because of the iPhone, a situation very similar to the one the United States currently faces with Apple. It is worth noting that creating the back door software could lead to treacherous government security systems breaches and catastrophic consequences.
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