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Apple is right to not hack iPhone for FBI

The story about the FBI, and now the Department of Justice, wanting Apple’s help in hacking the iPhone used by one of the terrorists in the San Bernardino, Calif., attack has gripped America over the past week.

And what a story it is.

The FBI says it wants Apple to create something that would help it unlock Syed Rizwan Farook’s iPhone and only Syed Rizwan Farook’s iPhone. Current versions of iOS feature a password-protection feature that wipes an iPhone’s data after 10 unsuccessful password attempts. That particular feature is turned off by default, but there’s no way to know if the feature is on in Farook’s iPhone because it’s locked. The government wants to be able to use brute force, that is make an unlimited number of guesses to eventually arrive at the correct one. No version of iOS currently exists with this feature, thus Apple’s argument that it would have to create a new version of iOS that would introduce a backdoor that could be dangerous were it to ever fall into the hands of hackers.

Still helpful

It’s not like Apple hasn’t been helpful thus far. Apparently, Farook had previously used iCloud backup to sync his data to the cloud and Apple has given that information to the FBI. But because he didn’t back up the content in the weeks leading up to the attacks, there’s likely more data in the phone, which could include phone calls, text messages, photos, GPS data and other material prudent to the investigation into where Farook had been and with whom he was in contact. Such information could, at least in theory, prevent a future attack or lead to the arrests of other people involved. That’s speculation, but that’s likely the kind of information the FBI wants and needs.

scott-kleinberg-apple-fbi-terrorismDepending on who you are, you either believe Apple is stubborn and siding with terrorists or you believe Apple is taking an important stand on privacy in the 21st century. Should the FBI and DOJ be successful in their quest, it could set a frightening precedent that could impact the rights of each and every person who uses a mobile phone.

A message to customers

In a message to customers posted to the company’s website this week, Apple CEO Tim Cook explains that rather than asking for legislative action through Congress, the FBI is proposing and unprecendented use of the All Writs Act of 1789 to justify an expansion of its authority. Apple calls the implications “chilling,” saying that this would give the government “the power to reach into anyone’s device to capture their data.”

Apple is absolutely right. Not just about that, but about this whole thing.

Believe me, I want to be safe from terrorists. And I have no doubt that the government thinks it’s trying to protect us with this request. But while the government calls help into breaking into a single phone, Apple wholeheartedly disagrees and states that clearly in its message to customers.

“The FBI 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.”

This is about much more than one case

The issue here goes much deeper than Apple taking a stand. The technology that protects your iPhone now is highly secure for your protection. How many times a week do you read about hackers stealing passwords, credit cards and other personal information? I for one am thankful that my iPhone is as secure as it is. That level of security is a selling point for everyone who buys Apple products. Other tech companies build their products in the same way to accomplish the same thing. I would feel the same way if I never used an Apple product a day in my life. In fact, a belief so strong might lead me to change my loyalties.

scott-kleinberg-iCloudApple would literally have to write new code and create a new program. Of course it could do it, but the ability to do what the FBI wants doesn’t exist right now. How confident are you that the FBI is the only place that will ever see this software? How confident are you that this code wouldn’t and couldn’t end up in the hands of people who just can’t wait to do us harm? What if the very people the FBI is trying to protect us from could all of a sudden hack into our phones? It might sound like X-Files conspiracy theory-type nonsense to you, but it’s not. It’s really not.

I’m pretty sure Apple is just as concerned about terrorists as the next person. The company is in a difficult spot, and the stance its taking is for our protection. That said, there are going to be a lot of people who will feel differently. Donald Trump has announced that he will boycott Apple. See what I mean? That’s OK. Donald Trump strikes me as a Windows Phone loving, Zune rocking dude anyhow. **YUUUUUGE UPDATE: Reports say that as Trump was announcing this boycott, the person tweeting on his Twitter account was doing so from an iPhone.**

I can’t think of a better way to sum up this post than with Apple’s closing words in its message to customers:

“We are challenging the FBI’s demands with the deepest respect for American democracy and a love of our country. We believe it would be in the best interest of everyone to step back and consider the implications. While we believe the FBI’s intentions are good, it would be wrong for the government to force us to build a backdoor into our products. And ultimately, we fear that this demand would undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect.”

Good for you, Apple. Good for all of us.

About Scott Kleinberg

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