In this blog let us dissect from a “layman’s point of view” the major issue that has popped up from the much talked about legal case between the company named Apple Inc. and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), over the decryption issue of an iPhone (Smartphone), which is alleged to be used by a convicted person in the San Bernardino terrorist attack. The most important question that the aforementioned case evokes in our mind is that “what is more important for us, Privacy or Security”?
At the outset, let me make it very clear that this blog is not meant to take sides of any of the parties concerned in the said case, which is pending before the court of law. However, this blog talks about a serious issue which is going to arise in front of every country and their citizens in the near future, as the technology keeps climbing the advancement stages. This clash between humans and technology is going to take a more extreme form in the days to come. So let’s be prepared to enjoy the technological growth, face the new challenges and bear the consequences in the near future.
In this blog, I have taken reference of the Message dated 16th February 2016, communicated to their customers, by Mr. Tim Cook, CEO of Apple Inc. Although, I have cited the relevant points of the said message at relevant places in this blog, however, for the complete message kindly check the company’s official website. (Source: www.apple.com)
In his message, Mr. Cook has strongly opposed the United States government order demanding decryption of the iPhone. He claims that this government order not only threatens the security of their customers but also has implications far beyond the legal case at hand. Let us see if this message is clear enough on all the points that arise in our mind or is it that some very important questions are still left unanswered. Mr. Cook has tried to clarify Apple’s stand in 4 points. So, herewith, let us try to comprehend all those points, along with the blogger’s view on the respective points –
1. The Need for Encryption
Apple’s stand – All that information needs to be protected from hackers and criminals who want to access it, steal it, and use it without our knowledge or permission. Customers expect Apple and other technology companies to do everything in our power to protect their personal information, and at Apple, we are deeply committed to safeguarding their data.
Compromising the security of our personal information can ultimately put our personal safety at risk. That is why encryption has become so important to all of us.
For many years, we have used encryption to protect our customers’ personal data because we believe it’s the only way to keep their information safe. We have even put that data out of our own reach because we believe the contents of your iPhone are none of our business.
Blogger’s View – Apple’s stand on encryption and commitment towards safeguarding a customer’s data is quite clear and appropriate. There is no argument on the point that all the information needs to be protected without fail from hackers and criminals. Indeed, we all, as a customer, do expect technology companies to protect our personal information and no exceptions should be tolerated on this front by any company or individual. At the same time, we also need to ask ourselves that do we want to safeguard the information that any criminal might be using against anyone of us. Will this not lead to putting the personal safety of the masses at risk?
It is rightly said in the message that information needs to be protected without fail from “hackers and criminals”. Now the only doubt that I have in my mind is that, on one hand, we are talking about protecting our database from hackers/criminals, while on the other hand, we are letting the other criminals use our “protecting measures”, as a shield against all the criminal activities in which they are involved into. Isn’t this contradictory to our very own purpose? First of all, we should be clear in our mind that whose data we want to protect. Can the same rules be applied to an innocent individual, as well as, a criminal? Shouldn’t there be a difference in approach while dealing with a criminal?
2. The San Bernardino Case
Apple’s stand – We were shocked and outraged by the deadly act of terrorism in San Bernardino last December. We mourn the loss of life and want justice for all those whose lives were affected. The FBI asked us for help in the days following the attack, and we have worked hard to support the government’s efforts to solve this horrible crime. We have no sympathy for terrorists.
When the FBI has requested data that’s in our possession, we have provided it. Apple complies with valid subpoenas and search warrants, as we have in the San Bernardino case. We have also made Apple engineers available to advise the FBI, and we’ve offered our best ideas on a number of investigative options at their disposal.
We have great respect for the professionals at the FBI, and we believe their intentions are good. Up to this point, we have done everything that is both within our power and within the law to help them. But now the U.S. government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create. They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone.
Specifically, the FBI wants us to make a new version of the iPhone operating system, circumventing several important security features, and install it on an iPhone recovered during the investigation. In the wrong hands, this software – which does not exist today – would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession.
The FBI may use different words to describe this tool, but make no mistake: Building a version of iOS that bypasses security in this way would undeniably create a backdoor. And while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control.
Blogger’s View – Every sane person will undoubtedly condemn any kind of illegal activities and terrorist attacks. We all mourn for the losses of life and sympathies with all those affected by such cruel attacks, anywhere on this earth. We all want justice and stand united against all the terrorists. As claimed, Apple has taken every effort which was within their power and within the law to help in the investigation. This is worth appreciating and it would be right to mention here that it is the responsibility of each one of us to cooperate and help with the investigating agencies in each and every single case.
Further, it is being mentioned that “But now the U.S. government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create”. Herewith, the 4 words in the above statement i.e. “too dangerous to create” caught my attention. After reading those 4 words, I stopped for a minute and questioned myself that what could be more dangerous than innocent people being killed in a terrorist attack. Atom bombs, nuclear bombs, hydrogen bombs and all other destructive weapons are dangerous, but still, we create it in the name of our safety.
I can very well understand the implication that this creation will have when it passes on “in the wrong hands”. But isn’t that risk attached to each and every single activity? Aren’t all the technologies dangerous if they reach in the wrong hands? Aren’t we all bound to live with the risk of destructive weapons reaching in the wrong hands? So, can decrypting a terrorist’s iPhone pass this test of “dangerous to create”?
It is further being quoted that “They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone”. Since I am not an expert in the field of technology, so I won’t be able to comment much on the same. However, I seriously think that if we do not agree to any suggestion then we should come up with another suggestion or try to figure out any other possible option, instead of straight away discarding the possibility of taking any course of action. I do hope that those who can build such powerful encrypted software could surely come up with a technology which could be used to decrypt the same, without weakening the privacy of other users. If this is not feasible then any other solution could be figured out, but only if we desire to reach on to some solution.
3. The Threat to Data Security
Apple’s stand – Some would argue that building a backdoor for just one iPhone is a simple, clean-cut solution. But it ignores both the basics of digital security and the significance of what the government is demanding in this case.
In today’s digital world, the “key” to an encrypted system is a piece of information that unlocks the data, and it is only as secure as the protections around it. Once the information is known, or a way to bypass the code is revealed, the encryption can be defeated by anyone with that knowledge.
The government suggests this tool could only be used once, on one phone. But that’s simply not true. Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices. In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks — from restaurants and banks to stores and homes. No reasonable person would find that acceptable.
The government is asking Apple to hack our own users and undermine decades of security advancements that protect our customers – including tens of millions of American citizens – from sophisticated hackers and cybercriminals. 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.
We can find no precedent for an American company being forced to expose its customers to a greater risk of attack. For years, cryptologists and national security experts have been warning against weakening encryption. Doing so would hurt only the well-meaning and law-abiding citizens who rely on companies like Apple to protect their data. Criminals and bad actors will still encrypt, using tools that are readily available to them.
Blogger’s View – As per my personal views, decrypting any encrypted software could never be a simple solution. It’s a tough task that requires expertise. As far as, the basics of digital security and the significance of the government demand are concerned, a generalized view could not be applied to each and every single case. Cases which are pertaining to the security of the people and wherein the life of innocent people are at stake, needs to be looked upon with a larger perspective.
The last line in the above mentioned point states that “Criminals and bad actors will still encrypt, using tools that are readily available to them”, which means that even Apple agrees to the fact that the criminals and persons with malicious intentions are always working hard in decrypting all the encrypted software’s in the world, in which they are interested. Doesn’t it mean that no system is full proof? If we agree to this fact then wouldn’t it be advisable for each and every single company which is responsible for the protection of the data to be upfront in decrypting their own software to find out bugs, even before their system is hacked by other hackers/criminals? I am sure all the big technology companies must be having such teams in their research wings. If this sounds feasible enough, then there is a slight possibility of decrypting the iPhone used by the terrorist. If not, then for sure the learned and experienced technical persons can come up with some way out to tackle this decrypting issue.
I completely agree with the concern raised in the above-mentioned point that “Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices”. However, let us take a hypothetical situation wherein one has to enter a premise captured by the terrorists, which has been locked by an encrypted lock which could only be unlocked by decrypting the lock. Now, tell me in this situation, will we back off from decrypting this lock just because all other similar locks could be decrypted post we create that decrypting software? Doesn’t that tantamount to providing a shield to the criminals? Now, it is for each one of us to think with a sound mind and decide that what should be our priority in such crucial situations, security or privacy.
It is also mentioned that “The government is asking Apple to hack our own users and undermine decades of security advancements that protect our customers”. Well, if the government is asking to decrypt all the users, irrespective of being a criminal or not, then without any second thought we can say that Apple has rightfully done in declining that demand straight away. But if that demand is only to decrypt the iPhone of a specific terrorist then it could not be generalized by saying that the government is asking Apple to hack their own users. I leave it on your good sense to decide whom we consider as our customers the innocent people or the terrorists?
4. A Dangerous Precedent
Apple’s stand – Rather than asking for legislative action through Congress, the FBI is proposing an unprecedented use of the All Writs Act of 1789 to justify an expansion of its authority.
The implications of the government’s demands are chilling. If the government can use the All Writs Act to make it easier to unlock your iPhone, it would have the power to reach into anyone’s device to capture their data. The government could extend this breach of privacy and demand that Apple build surveillance software to intercept your messages, access your health records or financial data, track your location, or even access your phone’s microphone or camera without your knowledge.
Blogger’s View – As I am not a subject matter expert so it would not be right on my part to comment on the specific act applicable to the United States. However, with regard to implications of the government’s demands as mentioned in the above point, I would like to once again state that “if the government is asking/asks in future to decrypt all the users, irrespective of being a criminal or not, then without any second thought, such demands should straight away be declined by the concerned company.
Now, I would like to end this blog with these thoughts that sooner or later we all will have to decide whether technology could be allowed to compromise the security of a nation and its citizens or not? What should be our priority, Privacy or Security? Could anything be more important than the life of a living being? Could governments be allowed to break into our privacy in the name of our security? As far as, standalone viewpoints of both the parties i.e. Apple Inc. and FBI, are concerned there is nothing wrong with them. None of the parties could be said to have bad intentions. However, we do hope that the parties concerned looks into the matter with a larger perspective and are able to reach on to some consensus. Finally, it’s for the court to decide the outcome of the case, so let’s wait and watch what lies in the womb of future.
I hope this blog will compel our mind to think on a serious issue which is going to hit every nation and citizens thereof, in the near future. It’s the right time that we take necessary action to overcome any future obstacles that can arise due to technological advancements. The need of the hour is to strike the right balance between technology, privacy, and security.
I wish the almighty bless us with good sense. God bless you all!