Understanding Apple’s Side of Their Fight with the FBI

apple_vs_fbi-1024x576In analyzing the Apple and FBI court case over the iPhone used by a San Bernadino terrorist, it has become quite obvious that many people are not completely comprehending the entirety of the facts. Unfortunately for Apple, I believe the complexity of the situation is hurting their position in the public eye. The FBI’s side of the issue has generally become overly-simplified. “Apple needs to unlock the iPhone of a terrorist,” is all that many people comprehend. I believe it has been hard for most people to understand the nuances of Apple’s defense. As with anything relating to technology, people can get easily bewildered by explanations of complex topics. Given an overly simplistic and one-sided viewpoint, it really is no wonder that there is much confusion over the issue. When people are not clear on a subject, they tend to fall back to whatever side feels the “safest.” In a case like this, it is no wonder public opinion appears to lean towards the side of “national security.” As proof of this, all one has to do is consider the fact that no candidate from either the Democratic or Republican party has shown explicit support for Apple.

That being said, I believe Apple could be doing a better job of simplifying the perception of their case in the court of public opinion. Unless someone wants to study Apple’s public statements in detail, it can be hard to get to the heart of Apple’s defense and understand why their position speaks to more broad-ranging issues than simply the data on one terrorist’s phone. So to help simplify Apple’s position, I have read Tim Cook’s open letter, watched his interview with ABC, read every page of Apple’s Motion to Vacate, and just this morning, Apple’s prepared statement to the House Judiciary Committee so that I can explain and clarify Apple’s position plus impart why it is so important for everyone to understand.

If you want a quick summary, Apple’s position basically states:

  • The FBI’s order goes far beyond any precedent set before.
  • It is unduly burdensome to Apple and the technology industry in general
  • The precedent set would give government virtually unlimited power to trample on personal liberties well outside of the scope of this case
  • Finally the FBI order is quite simply illegal. If anything, this is a matter for congress to legislate, not for the FBI or a judge to decide.

In a nutshell, the FBI’s actions could end up having far-reaching repercussions that devastate the very freedom they are supposed to be protecting. If you’d like a more through explanation, keep reading.

Apple’s Defense Explained

First, it can not be stressed enough that the FBI’s order is NOT a simple warrant to search for some data. Nor is it a request for Apple to do something they can easily do or have done before. It is not as simple as “pushing a few buttons” or just removing some code. If it were so straightforward, Apple would have already complied, as they have in the past and have cooperated so far in this situation. Complying with the FBI’s order will be a massively complex technical undertaking for Apple, taking hundreds or thousands of man-hours to complete, plus potentially a significant amount more resources to maintain after the fact. Never has a private company ever been forced to go through such lengths on an investigation they are not a direct party to. Additionally, the FBI unilaterally decided to change the iCloud password of the terrorist’s account prior to consulting with Apple. Why they did this is not known at this time, but by doing this they wasted a great opportunity to have access to the data on the phone without needing to go through extraordinary measures. It is entirely possible the FBI could have avoided this situation altogether had they not make such a grievous error.

Second, the veritable Pandora’s box that would be opened by complying with the FBI order would be an incredible burden to not only Apple but potentially much of the technology industry. While the FBI claims this would be a one-time request on a single phone, the reality is that many law enforcement departments are already lining up to make the same request as the FBI – and the FBI themselves already have several other cases in waiting! Besides being a significant and costly burden for Apple or any other company with similar products, the creation and maintenance of an insider hacking tool has serious implications on the security of American technology products. If companies can be forced to hack their own products, would they actually be able to create truly secure devices anymore? The monumental burden for companies to create, maintain, and keep secure these self-inflicted hacking tools would be unlike any ever sustained before. Companies are used to protecting trade secrets from other companies, but can they honestly be asked to protect hacking tools that criminals and foreign espionage would no doubt target?

Now the two points I have brought up above are somewhat arbitrary. They primarily speak to the undue burden that the government would place on Apple and other technology companies. It is not hard to see that someone who takes a hardline on national security could brush away these arguments with a simple, “tough luck” rationale. However, the next two points are what I believe are the meat and potatoes of Apple’s position, which truly should be the position of anyone who is concerned with protecting privacy and individual liberties in this country, as well as national security.

Apple’s third argument contends that legal enforcement of the FBI’s order implies that they can literally enforce any request of any kind on any company or individual as long as they claim it is “necessary” for the purposes of law enforcement. There would be virtually nothing that could not be requested, including forcing a company to create encryption backdoors. This is quite literally the definition of conscription, impressment, or involuntary servitude. While the FBI may not be technically asking for an encryption backdoor in this particular case, it is in essence a legal back door to eventually forcing technology companies to cripple the security of their products for the convenience of law enforcement. It is precisely this legal back door that privacy and liberty advocates should be the most concerned about, especially because it could be so broadly applied to almost any company in any industry as well as private individuals.

This argument dovetails right into perhaps Apple’s most powerful defense, namely that the federal government simply does not have the authority to make such a request. It is categorically outside the power given to them through the Constitution by we the people. Therefore such a request is plain illegal. I don’t know how anyone could justify the federal government violating the very Constitution they are sworn to defend and uphold. Tim Cook himself said, “To oppose your government … on something where we are advocating on civil liberties which they are supposed to protect, it is incredibly ironic.”

Why YOU Should Care About What Apple is Defending

While the FBI and the Obama administration may be semantically correct that this particular request is just about one iPhone,  it should be obvious that what the FBI is trying to force Apple to comply with has ramifications far beyond just a single investigation. Absolutely nothing would stop the FBI or other law enforcement agencies from pursuing the same strategy on other cases. If the software Apple were forced to develop were ever leaked into the public, criminals and foreign governments would have a dangerous tool at their disposal. The odds of the software leaking would increase every single time another agency ordered its use.

As Tim Cook reiterated many times during his televised interview, this isn’t about one iPhone, it is about the future. He brought up a great point that my wife especially took notice of: your smartphone likely has more personal information about you, including the location of your family and children, than anything else in the world. The security of people’s data on their smartphones is no trivial matter. If the FBI’s actions end up endangering the private data on millions of people’s phones, that is potentially a disaster of monumental proportions. When viewed as a public safety issue, Apple has just as much of an argument on the side of national security as the federal government does.

The bottom line is that if you care about the security of your most private data: your finances, health data, and even the safety of your family, you must realize that what the FBI is asking for is very dangerous. It would be undermining the extensive security precautions Apple and other technology companies have been refining in addition to subverting many of the principles of individual liberties that this country was founded on. If we are working to protect this country from terrorists who want to destroy our freedoms and principles that we hold dear, why would we accept our own government destroying them instead?