National security at odds with personal privacy

Royal Purple Staff Opinion

March 1, 2016

Donald Trump recently called for a boycott of Apple products, and because he’s obviously the prevailing expert on cybersecurity ethics, we think you should listen … unless you read our publications from an iPhone … then you should ignore him (on second thought, ignore him regardless).

Trump went after Apple because it’s locked up in a legal battle with the FBI over an iPhone, and the precedents set in the case could have lasting effects for online privacy and national security.

The Royal Purple is actually going to stand in opposition to Trump on this one. We encourage students to call their representatives in congress and express support for Apple. Also, it wouldn’t hurt to check and make sure your mobile devices are using their encryption features (FileVault for Apple and BitLocker for Windows).

That’s why Apple is in this sticky situation in the first place. Currently, Apple products use built-in encryption features that make data on individual devices unreachable – even to software engineers – and they don’t want to breach those security features for the FBI.

But we’re not talking about an ordinary iPhone. Apple is refusing to help unlock an iPhone that was used by Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the gunmen involved in the San Bernardino shootings that killed 14 people.

Because the case is tied to national security, a California judge ruled that Apple must comply with the FBI’s requests and unlock the phone.

The ruling was based on the All Writs Act of 1789, which requires people or businesses not involved in a case to execute court orders. For the record, the All Writs Act came about 50 years before the invention of the telephone (we also enjoy the irony).

On the surface, the case appears fairly straightforward. Why wouldn’t the software giant assist the FBI in gathering information from a known terrorist? Isn’t this a matter of national security after all? It certainly is.

And if the FBI is able to access data on the phone, it might be able to track down other terrorists and prevent more attacks in the future. 

But it’s also a matter of privacy, and as we’ve learned from the NSA, the two are often at odds with one another. Because of this, Apple is challenging the court’s ruling.

Specifically, the FBI wants Apple to develop software that would allow it to circumvent the iPhone’s lock screen without erasing the phone’s encrypted data. iPhones currently delete internal data after 10 failed password attempts.

In a public response to the case, Apple CEO Tim Cook said helping the FBI unlock Farook’s phone would set a dangerous precedent. It would allow the FBI to request access to any iPhone and would undermine security software by creating a “backdoor” for cyber criminals to use.

By bypassing its encryption features, Apple would go further than just unlocking Farook’s phone. If Apple is forced to comply in this case, courts could require it to do the same for other iPhones. The FBI could even ask the company to create software that could hack any Apple products. Not to mention there’s the risk that hackers could steal the potentially dangerous software from company servers.

Going further, if U.S. agencies can compel Apple to unlock iPhones, there’s no reason other countries with more oppressive governments couldn’t do the same.

The FBI undoubtedly has good intentions. They’re trying to prevent more acts of terror from happening on American soil, and that’s a very just cause.

But asking Apple to create software to bypass its security features is unnecessary and dangerous, and would open doors for criminals and international agencies to spy on and steal information from American citizens. That’s something we can’t get behind.

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