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Cook Takes Encryption Battle to the Streets

By Natalie Campisi
Feb 17, 2016 3:19 PM PT

CEO Tim Cook on Tuesday brought Apple's dispute with the FBI to the public. Cook penned an open letter explaining the company's resistance to a federal magistrate's order to create software that would let authorities access data in an iPhone used by the shooters in last year's San Bernardino terrorist attack.

Carrying out the order could undermine the security of all iPhone users, Cook argued.

"The United States government has demanded that Apple take an unprecedented step which threatens the security of our customers. We oppose this order, which has implications far beyond the legal case at hand," he wrote.

Apple has complied with the FBI's request for information regarding Syed Farook's iPhone, having provided all of the data in the company's possession, according to Cook's letter.

The problem surrounds the FBI's request that Apple provide a "back door" to the iPhone's encrypted data, something Cook said is "too dangerous to create."

"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," Cook said.

Even though the FBI promised that the custom software would be used only in the San Bernardino investigation, Apple is concerned that it might be leaked or used later. That could undermine encryption for millions of other users, according to the letter.

Electronic Privacy

One of the issues raised by the FBI's request concerns the public's expectation of privacy regarding data stored on a phone, which could include everything from bank account information to medical records. The stakes are high for companies that promise to protect their customers' sensitive data.

"This is definitely a question of privacy," said Michael E. Dergosits, a partner in Dergosits & Noah.

"Already there are programs that run on our phones -- like Google Maps -- that ask for personal information like your location or current position, so right now there's a great sharing of personal private information on the phone amongst applications," he told TechNewsWorld.

"Presumably, the owner of the phone can change settings to block this transmission of information or install security software," Dergosits continued. "Those kinds of issues are already prevalent. But I think what we're talking about is balancing interests between personal and public safety and personal privacy -- whether the federal government or state and local law enforcement should be in a position to be able to demand access to those kinds of capabilities."

The big issue here is the public's perception of what's private, he said. Right now, there's a high expectation of privacy regarding information stored on a person's cellphone. That's not the case when it comes to other types of searches, such as airport scans or voluntary background checks.

"If you have a document on the front seat of your car when you get pulled over, you can't have an expectation of privacy ... because it's in plain view. But if you have it an envelope in your trunk inside a piece of baggage, then it would seem that your expectation is that you wouldn't want it to be within plain view or where anyone could see," Dergosits explained.

"If you're randomly stopped, the law enforcement [official] has to have some sort of probable cause for opening up a closed container that might have something private in it," he said. "If they don't have probable cause, then they have to get a warrant. The same goes for going to a venue like an airport or concert venue, or somewhere where you're subject to search. That's your personal choice to submit to that search."

Talking to the People

Cook's tactic of publishing an open letter was a smart way to democratize the issue and communicate Apple's message directly, sidestepping the media spin, suggested Burghardt Tenderich, associate director at the USC Center for Public Relations.

"The strategy is to create a grassroots feeling to this," he told TechNewsWorld. "They want to take it away from a discussion between the CEO of the world's second most valuable company and the FBI, and really take it to the people."

Because this issue directly affects Apple's customers, it makes sense for the company to talk to them directly, Tenderich reasoned. It also gives the company complete control of its message.

"I would say the intention is probably to prevent this from happening, because according to Tim Cook, they have good technical reasons to believe that this isn't in the best interest of the public," said Tenderich.

"Maybe it's also a defense strategy in case they are forced to develop this software," he added. "They can point to this letter to say 'look, we fought this battle on your behalf.'"

Apple did not respond to our request for further details.

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