Apple has declared that it does not know how to unlock a “locked” Apple smart phone and further considers helping unlock one a disservice to its customers. Hmmm.
Apple’s remarks were in response to a Justice Department requests for assistance in unlocking the cell phone of the San Bernardino terrorists. Justice Department spokespersons describe Apple’s actions as a “marketing strategy”.
The Government’s position is simple, there may be information on the cell phone which could shed light on how the husband and wife terrorists planned and prepared for the December 2, 2015 mass shootings. Officials say the phone could contain very valuable leads to who else supported the terrorists. Sound like a matter of national security?
Apple is indeed facing a difficult marketing strategy. Following the NSA’s wholesale collection of cell phone communications aided by the existence of cell phone software “backdoors”, companies such as Apple faced a distrustful foreign country’s reception. Consumers as well as governments suspected collusion between Apple (and other tech companies) and the NSA. Apple could expect onerous restrictions including “backdoor” requests from foreign governments too. Apple feared this would significantly reduce the iPhone’s demand and value. Hmmm.
As a consequence Apple adopted encryption on all iPhones and installed software code which permanently disabled any phone which failed to open within 10 attempts of unlock. Government investigators have the terrorist cell phone but are reluctant to try guessing its password.
So, the big question revolves around personal privacy and government’s needs in investigating crimes (or suspected wrong doing).
The San Bernardino terrorists are both dead and there have been no indications that they were part of a larger group with further attacks imminent. As a consequence, the Justice Department’s request of Apple may seem nice but unnecessary.
But what about the proverbial terrorist who plants a powerful bomb in some unknown place and all the authorities have is his locked cell phone. Or, reimagine 9/11 and authorities find a locked cell phone and by being unable to unlock it, fail to detect the greater 9/11 plot?
Privacy versus national security is not trivial. Regrettably, governments are notorious in getting an inch and turning it into a mile. A government known “backdoor” could be exploited for non-terrorist actions as well. Maybe the IRS or the EPA or the SEC might like to have a look into private cell phones for information pertinent to their work.
And still more insidious, maybe politicians might like to uncover some “dirt” on opponents by using the back door of opponents doctors, lawyers, or accountants’ phones.
Smart phones are much more than telephones. They are more akin to personal computers which contain bank records, personal files, daily agendas, and contact lists. A court subpoena to enter a smart phone’s backdoor in search of terrorist information could lead to data useful in a tax evasion or securities fraud investigation. Hmmm.
This quandary is not a new one. The government expressed strong disagreement with Apple’s decision several years ago. It appears the Justice Department has waited until it had just the right opportunity to make its case. If Apple should prevail in this case, no big deal because the stakes seem pedestrian. If the Justice Department should win, law enforcement will be next in line wanting access to the backdoor.
And in addition to other law enforcement agencies wanting to use the backdoor, cyber criminals will be just as eager to crack a smart phone’s defense. Hmmm.