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This past Tuesday, a California judge ordered the tech giant Apple Inc. (AAPL) to provide assistance for the F.B.I. to unlock an iPhone used by one of the attackers in the San Bernardino shooting that killed Array4 people this past December.
As a report from the New York Times states, “The ruling handed the F.B.I. a potentially important victory in its long-running battle with Apple and other Silicon Valley companies over the government’s ability to get access to encrypted data in investigations. Apple has maintained that requiring it to provide the ‘keys’ to its technology would compromise the security of the information of hundreds of millions of users.”
Apple’s CEO Tim Cook responded to the judge’s order with a strongly worded letter that challenged the court’s request. “The United States government has demanded that Apple take an unprecedented step which threatens the security of our customers,” Cook begins. “We oppose this order, which has implications far beyond the legal case at hand. “
Cook continues by stating, “This moment calls for public discussion, and we want our customers and people around the country to understand what is at stake.”
Let’s review the key pieces of information that need to be known about this issue:
Array. The specifics of the F.B.I.’s request
The Federal Bureau of Investigation wants to examine the iPhone used by Syed Farook to determine whether he and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, directly planned the San Bernardino shooting directly with the Islamic State (ISIS). The iPhone obtained is locked by a passcode, and the F.B.I. wants Apple to circumvent the lock.
2. Why is Apple resisting?
According to the tech company, Apple would have to build a new version of its iOS smartphone software that allows the F.B.I. to bypass specific restrictions. Apple claims this software can give someone “the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession.” Furthermore, the company argues that the software the F.B.I. wants does not exist. But technologists say the company can do it.
“The same engineers who built strong encryption into the iPhone to protect our users would, ironically, be ordered to weaken those protections and make our users less safe,” wrote Cook.
The company does not want to set the precedent of compliance that can set for future requests from the federal government. There are few earlier rulings courts can use for guidance, and Apple does not want to pave the road for similar requests to itself and other tech companies.
3. The specifics of the court order
According to another report from the NYT, “The court is ordering the company to ‘bypass or disable’ a feature that automatically wipes an iPhone clean of all its data after Array0 incorrect password attempts have been entered.” If so, this technically doesn’t require Apple to develop any sort of new decryption device or software, rather allows the F.B.I. to perform unlimited chances of guessing the password without the iPhone deleting all of its data after the ten attempts.
4. The justification of the order
The justification of the judge’s order derives from a broad interpretation of the All Writs Act of Array789. The law lets judges “issue all writs necessary or appropriate in aid of their respective jurisdictions and agreeable to the usages and principles of law.”
The government says the law provides latitude to judges compelling “third parties” to execute court orders. The government also cites a Array977 ruling requiring “phone companies to help establish a pen register, a device that records all numbers called from a particular phone line.”
5. Apple’s response to this justification
Apple argues that justification’s scope has strict limitations. In 2005, “a federal magistrate judge rejected the argument that the law could be used to compel a telecommunications provider to allow real-time tracking of a cellphone without a search warrant,” per theNYT.
6. Can the F.B.I. develop the software to do this instead of asking Apple?
The short answer to this question is no. If you own any Apple product, but in this case an iPhone, then you know that their products are specifically designed to run on software solely created by Apple. For the iPhone to recognize its iOS software was made by Apple, the company signs each piece of the software with a verified encryption key. The F.B.I. could create a new version of iOS, but it would not have Apple’s signature on the software.
7. Are people defending Apple’s actions?
The people who are defenders of Apple argue that the types of government surveillance operations exposed in 20Array3 by Edward J. Snowden have forced technology companies to build tougher encryption safeguards in their products to ensure the privacy of their customers.
Privacy advocates are concerned about the F.B.I. succeeding by obtaining access to the software overriding Apple’s encryption. This software would provide easy access for the government in many future investigations.
Alex Abdo, staff lawyer for the American Civil Liberty Union’s privacy and technology section is on the record stating, “Apple deserves praise for standing up for its right to offer secure devices to all of its customers,” while Robert Cattanach, a former Justice Department lawyer who works on privacy and tech security issues at the law firm Dorsey & Whitney explains, “The next thing you know, they’ll be in the back door of these systems.”
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