Editorial: Apple is right to stand up against FBI

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Editorial: Apple is right to stand up against FBI

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A showdown between America’s tech companies and the U.S. government has been brewing largely behind the scenes. Agencies such as the FBI have requested user information from entities such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Microsoft for at least several years as part of criminal investigations.

But on Feb. 16, there was a major public flash point in the heretofore-private war over privacy, delivered by Apple. Responding to a court order to decrypt the iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters, Apple CEO Tim Cook penned an open letter addressed to the company’s customers.

“The United States government has demanded that Apple take an unprecedented step which threatens the security of our customers,” the message begins. “We oppose this order, which has implications far beyond the legal case at hand.”

The order, at the request of the FBI, would have Apple install a “backdoor” on the iPhone of Syed Farook, who, along with wife, Tashfeen Malik, killed 14 people and injured 22 others in a terrorist attack on Dec. 2, 2015. Essentially, this backdoor would allow the FBI to use “brute force” to get into the locked iPhone, guessing password after password in rapid succession, without being locked out or delayed by incorrect guesses.

In theory, there should be no objection to decrypting a known shooter’s phone, particularly after the perpetrator has been killed in a shootout with police. The problem, as Cook said, is that such a backdoor could not be created uniquely for one iPhone. “Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices,” he writes. “In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks.”

Tech companies signaling public opposition to data requests or snooping from government agencies isn’t entirely new. In January, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, and Yahoo sent a joint statement to the U.K. Parliament opposing a bill that would force companies to help authorities gain access to suspects’ smart phones and computers.

And since 2012, Twitter has been releasing a “transparency report” detailing the number of requests it receives from government agencies to access its users’ data, among other notices, like copyright takedown and other removal requests. Other companies such as Google, Facebook, and Yahoo have followed suit in releasing their own reports.

But Apple’s decision to publicly oppose and refuse (so far) to comply with the federal court order may signal a new paradigm for tech companies opposed to government intrusion on their users’ data. Cook wrote that the government is “asking Apple to hack our own users,” a precedent that could radically alter the public’s trust in these companies and have significant ramifications beyond simple data privacy.

The Daily Iowan Editorial Board believes the court’s order, though well-meaning, would open the door for malevolent actors to access private data for the purposes of fraud and theft.

Additionally, after seeing the extent of secret surveillance that the U.S. government (via agencies such as the NSA) has conducted, we are skeptical that this single decryption request is the extent of the FBI’s interest in accessing people’s data. We believe Apple is right to stand up to the federal government, because this case could have far-reaching implications beyond the scope of a single criminal investigation.