Forcing Apple to Hack That iPhone Sets a Dangerous Precedent
Are Apple and other tech companies somehow against America’s national security if they create uncrackable encryption software that government investigators or even the company’s own engineers can’t break into?
That’s the question coming to a head in the controversy over whether or not Apple should be forced to engineer new software to allow the FBI to unlock the iPhone used by one of the terrorists from the San Bernardino attack that killed 14 people in my home state of California last year.
The attacks were unspeakable and more needs to be done to prevent attacks like these in the future. But the FBI cannot mandate that Apple create a backdoor to override the iPhone’s encryption features without creating a dangerous precedent that could cast a long shadow over the future of how we use our phones, laptops and the internet for years to come. We must understand the gravity of what is at stake if we give government this unprecedented review of our private communications.
At first glance, the issue seems simple: Why shouldn’t law enforcement have access to information that could help us hunt down other terrorists or even to help prevent other terrorist attacks in the future?
But this simplification overlooks the reason why companies have built their systems so securely to begin with: namely, to prevent criminals, terrorists and hackers from gaining access to our private and sensitive information. It’s a huge technological breakthrough that engineers are able to build systems so secure that even their own architects cannot break into them. And it’s why major players in the tech industry—from Facebook and Twitter to Microsoft and Google—are lining up to support Apple’s stance.
As Americans are increasingly living their lives online, it’s now become just as important for people to be able to secure their phones, laptops, credit card numbers, and accounts from intruders as it is to secure their homes.
Just last year, the federal government suffered numerous embarrassing cyber attacks: The Office of Personnel Management’s security breach resulted in the theft of 22 million Americans’ information, including fingerprints, Social Security numbers, addresses, employment history, and financial records. And the Internal Revenue Service’s hack left as many as 334,000 taxpayer accounts compromised‑though just this week, the IRS revised that number to over 700,000 accounts, more than twice their original estimates.
And it’s not just the government suffering these hacks: Target, JPMorgan, Home Depot, and more have all faced massive data breaches that left millions of Americans’ personal information exposed. Many of these people are just now starting to find out the extent of the damage done.
Forcing Apple to manufacture new security vulnerabilities into its phones’ operating system in order to give the government access paves the way for these kinds of breaches to become all the more common. But even more alarming are the implications this decision would have for the online security of Americans for generations.
If the government is successful in forcing Apple to help decrypt the phone in this case, it would create a dangerous precedent that would allow the government to continue coming back again and again to decrypt all kinds of devices in all kinds of circumstances, far beyond national security.
It’s already been uncovered that the Justice Department is seeking similar court orders in as many as 12 other cases to give them access to the data inside locked iPhones. These cases are all over the nation: four in Illinois, three in New York, two in California, two in Ohio, and one in Massachusetts. And reports indicate that not these cases do not involve an act of terrorism. If you were worried about the slippery slope we’d create by allowing government access to this single phone, well… it’s already here.
The problem of course is that if a special key is created and left under the front mat for law enforcement, the key won’t just be used by good guys in limited circumstances. They key will inevitably be discovered by others when they come snooping around, giving China, Russia, and hackers everywhere an entry point to our phones and the sensitive information stored on them.
No one would say that Apple should obstruct justice or intentionally impede law enforcement’s attempts to bring perpetrators of heinous acts of violence to justice. But a company also shouldn’t be forced to deliberately weaken the integrity of their own products and subject millions of customers to security vulnerabilities in order to do so.
Law enforcement are not ill-intentioned in their attempts to gain access to the information inside this particular phone. In Apple CEO Tim Cook’s open letter, he writes, “We have great respect for the professionals at the FBI and we believe their intentions are good.”
Whether tech companies like Apple can be forced to undermine their own products and whether they will have to leave a backdoor open for government—and whoever else may find it—in their products is currently a question left to the courts. But as Congress begins contemplating revisions to the 1789 statue upon which this court order is built, lawmakers must be sure to protect citizens’ right to privacy and preserve the integrity of the online security protocols that help keep us all safe.