Banging on Apple’s Backdoor

Apple’s tussle with the FBI over its refusal to create a ‘backdoor’ into a terror suspect’s encrypted iPhone has ramifications for us all.

By Zeid Nasser

It’s been described as a historic tussle that will determine the future of data privacy. Apple has decided to publicly resist a court order to unlock a password-protected iPhone belonging to US terror suspect Syed Rizwan Farook.

But the bigger story is that the FBI also wants Apple to create a backdoor to its users؛ data to enable governmental agencies to side-step encryption when needed. These demands have created a shockwave worldwide.

Should Apple yield to these requests, legislators warn that it could force all US technology companies to build hacking tools for governments to utilize, weakening secure encryption technologies for every user worldwide. Already, Russia and China are also demanding greater access to mobile data held by Apple and other manufacturers.

Encryption is critical to protecting trillions of online transactions every day, in addition to personal data. Whether you’re shopping, paying a bill, or sending an email, you’re using encryption. It turns your data into indecipherable text that can only be read by the right key.

In a very strongly-worded statement, Apple said: “While we recognize the legitimate needs of law enforcement agencies to investigate criminal and terrorist activity, Apple has never worked with any government agency from any country to create a ‘back door’ in any of our products or services. We have also never allowed any government access to our servers. And we never will.”

Though that sounds like a definitive ‘no,’ Apple realizes it might lose this battle. Prior to going public, Apple held closed-door meetings in January with national security officials in which the company’s CEO, Tim Cook, urged the Obama administration to make a public statement in support of strong encryption. No such statement was ever made.

The topic is so hot that the controversial presidential candidate, Donald Trump, even weighed in, calling for a boycott of Apple products because of its refusal to cooperate with the FBI.

A coalition of technology companies, and consumer and civil liberty groups came together to launch a petition site, SaveCrypto.Org which asks President Obama to support strong encryption.

In another defiant statement, Cook also said the FBI had no way of ensuring that its backdoor would remain in US government hands. The point he’s making is that such an intentional vulnerability could also be utilized by criminals and terrorists.

Technology companies are trying to present a balanced view, mostly agreeing to the legitimate needs of law enforcement agencies to investigate criminal and terrorist activity, but making strong statements against an always-open back door.

That’s why online industry heavy-weights like Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, and the Wikimedia Foundation have also signed a letter sent by Open Technology Institute (OTI) which states that introducing intentional vulnerabilities into secure products for the government’s use will make those products less secure against other attackers.

Among the first to come to Apple’s support was Sundar Pichai, Google’s CEO, who said that “giving law enforcement occasional access to user data is wholly different to requiring companies to enable hacking of customer devices and data.”

Many other technology companies have also made their voice heard on the matter. Microsoft said that “while governments only request data on a very small fraction of our customers, governments are seeking to alter the balance between privacy and public safety in a way that impacts everyone.”

Yahoo said it has “encrypted many of the most important products and services to protect against snooping by governments or other actors.” Adobe announced that it “vigorously opposes such legislation in the U.S. and overseas,” and Amazon said the security of electronic payments information should not be compromised. Snapchat, Pinterest, What’sApp, Dropbox, and many others also issued statements in support of Apple’s stance.

But law enforcement authorities are insisting on having a back door requirement, which is why this battle will eventually head to the Supreme Court.

If Apple loses its case, you can expect a full-blown invasion of privacy. Apparently, law enforcement agents all over the world already have lists of thousands of iPhones they want Apple to unlock; then the phones and devices of other manufacturers will be next.

So what does it mean for the rest of us? For users in our part of the world, it’s an awakening of a different kind. Most thought their personal data was already accessible and that their communications were already being monitored. But, as it appears, it’s still not entirely the case. Unfortunately, we won’t have much time to rejoice as our perceived reality becomes our actual reality when the backdoors are opened.