Almost everyone you know has an iPhone, but how many of them really understand their tech privacy rights?
A 2016 legal case, Apple vs. FBI, raised important questions about the legality of compromising user privacy. After more than a dozen people were killed in the December 2015 terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, the FBI tried to get hold of one of the attacker’s iPhones.
While it might help the FBI piece together terror cases, Apple won’t let the agency in. To do this, Apple had to create new software to get it into the device. But it would also be a backdoor where future hackers could find their way into someone else’s iPhone data.
Ultimately, Apple insisted and threatened to take the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Before that, however, the FBI hired an Australian company, Azimuth Security, to gain access to the phone. After this approach worked, Apple had to figure out how the company was able to access the iPhone without Apple’s help.
India McKinney is the Director of Federal Affairs at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has more than 10 years experience as a legislative staffer in the capital, and is passionate about user privacy. She has also written numerous articles on web-related issues. She noted that the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security “want to have access to everything you’ve ever thought of. They want it all. … We don’t think it’s good.”
McKinney strongly believed that the government should not freely control the speech and activities of its citizens.
As in the San Bernardino case, the line between terrorists is less clear. At what point do we feel morally obligated to allow government access to private user databases?
Heather Mahalik, a digital forensics and incident response specialist and staff member of the Cellebrite and SANS Institute, found herself on both sides of the San Bernardino case. She was a contractor for the FBI at the time, but she didn’t think Apple should have given the agency anything. She suspects backdoors that can unlock private information.
But she also believes that backdoors are a very valuable tool for governments and law enforcement when an attack occurs again.
“The benefits of backdoors outweigh the downsides,” she said. “Are we more concerned with the safety of the public or complete privacy?”
However, the San Bernardino case is an isolated case. If Apple had created an access point for the FBI at the time, it would have compromised the security of millions of other users.
In the case of serial terrorism, many people will have different positions.
Through this security and ethics battle, Apple has demonstrated its commitment to user privacy. In this case, the protection of privacy ensures the future technical security of ordinary users.
People like Mahalik prefer the government to use their abilities to get what they need. That’s what the FBI ended up doing; through a private contract, the FBI gained access to the data it needed without Apple’s help.
The San Bernardino case was one of the first to create a line of public expectation between private companies, the government, and users like themselves.
Unlikely to be the last time.
Claire Kirby Graduated from St. Ignatius College Preparatory in Chicago with a special interest in cybersecurity. She recently moved to Kiawah Island.