Apple’s Tussle with the FBI ; Why We Should be Concerned
The FBI got hold of the iPhone of dead San Bernardino terrorism suspect, Syed Rizwan Farook back in December, but sophisticated encryption technology present on the Apple made phone has prevented the authorities from accessing its contents.
Hardly two weeks back, the Federal Bureau of Investigation accepting defeat called Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, California, asking the company to help them get into his iPhone. Apple politely refused.
Things quickly escalated on 16th February, when a federal judge in California on the request of the FBI ordered Apple to provide the investigative agency with the tools required to unlock Farooq’s phone which according to the FBI was used by the shooter in the San Bernardino attack.
And just last night, Apple CEO Tim Cook responded to this new development with a strong-worded open letter to its customers. Cook in his letter described the FBI’s actions as an “unprecedented step which threatens the security of all customers” hinting that the actions involved in this one case could have far-reaching repercussions beyond just this one isolated case. And, for once, Tim Cook has got things spot on.
The FBI’s request to violate the privacy rights of a dead suspected terrorist may not ring any alarm bells or the consequent order of the court asking Apple to cook up a custom version of its iOS specifically for this phone to help the authorities gain access to it does not sound malicious in isolation, but As Tim Cook points out this small step has the potential to undermine the security of each and every iPhone around the globe.
“The government suggests this tool could only be used once, on one phone,” Cook wrote. “But that’s simply not true. Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices.”
What essentially the FBI wants Apple to do is help it get around crucial privacy features meant for safeguarding the phone from criminals using brute force attack. If Apple complies, and puts its best minds to cook up a software to nullify the encryption chip on its phone, and bypass the AES 256 bit encryption system on it, this will not only set the precedent for further legal or illegal use of this new technique by the government for any iPhone in the world, but also leave the door wide open for criminals to get their hands on this tech, and compromise the privacy of everyone with an iPhone.
In today’s digital world, the “key” to an encrypted system is a piece of information that unlocks the data, and it is only as secure as the protections around it. Once the information is known, or a way to bypass the code is revealed, the encryption can be defeated by anyone with that knowledge.
In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks — from restaurants and banks to stores and homes. No reasonable person would find that acceptable.
Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai has in a list of tweets backed Tim Cook’s open letter giving strength to the argument that giving the authorities such overreaching powers could have serious repercussions. The FBI’s request, however innocent, and noble in intention should be rejected at every chance possible because it holds in itself the possibility of malice that if unleashed could undermine our privacy going forward.
Giving the government access to user data occasionally is wholly different than giving them the power to hack into our phones, and invade our privacy. If the FBI succeeds in this then it could indeed be a troubling precedent going ahead for users not just in the United States, but also here in India.