Tech Law

Apple FBI Standoff Stretches Into Week Two

Apple on Monday called for the creation of a government panel to help resolve a standoff between the company and the Federal Bureau of Investigation over the issue of national security vs. data privacy.

The proposal for a commission followed FBI Director James Comey’s Sunday post on Lawfare — an apparent effort to quell the controversy. Comey emphasized that the bureau was not seeking a master key that would allow it to snoop into American citizens’ devices at will.

The American public expects the bureau to do its utmost to investigate the killings carried out in last year’s terrorist attack in San Bernardino, and that includes examining the data contained in a locked iPhone 5c used by shooter Syed Rizwan Farook, he argued.

The FBI’s goal is to obtain any information that will aid its investigation within the limits of the law, and it would seek search warrants when appropriate, Comey reaffirmed.

The bureau wants Apple to disable some of the passcode protections on Farook’s iPhone, Comey said. Officials are concerned that any efforts to gain access to the device without Apple’s assistance could result in the handset self-destructing, or in the data becoming corrupted.

Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California last week ordered Apple to provide assistance to the FBI by creating software that could allow authorities to access data on Farook’s handset. However, Apple has objected on the grounds that such a move would result in a general loss of user privacy.

Apple CEO Tim Cook shone a spotlight on the company’s dispute with FBI with the publication of an open letter defending Apple’s resistance to the federal magistrate’s order.

Master Key

The dispute appears to be one in which existing laws have not kept pace with technological advances, and both sides are making their cases on the issue.

“The FBI insists that it’s not making a blanket request covering all iPhones, but simply [seeking] Apple’s assistance unlocking one device,” said Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT.

“Since that would require Apple to break what it says is an unbreakable security technology, doing so would resonate across the company’s business,” he told TechNewsWorld.

The public in the past has supported government agencies’ investigation efforts, and given that 14 people were killed in the San Bernardino terrorist shooting, opinion could swing to the FBI’s side.

“Given the heinous acts related to this phone, I expect most people — were they asked directly — would side with the FBI,” said King.

Locked Horns

Judging from the tenor of their arguments, it doesn’t appear that the FBI and Apple have found any common ground.

Although a judge already has ruled in favor of the FBI, “this is going to be decided in the court of public opinion, and it will play out based on who makes the best argument to support their case,” opined Scott Steinberg, founder and principal analyst at TechSavvy Global.

“The FBI is not trying anything nefarious here. They have a concrete argument that they are trying to look for evidence that can shed some light on the shooting,” he told TechNewsWorld.

“Comey’s statement is clearly meant to counter support Apple has received from other IT vendors, but in a way that’s turned this thing into a battle of PR agencies,” observed Pund-IT’s King.

Privacy Issues

Apple could sway public opinion its way through its dire warnings of how its compliance with the order could result in a loss of privacy by all handset users.

“There is the danger of creating a skeleton key that could find its way to unwanted hands and which could be abused,” Steinberg pointed out.

“The FBI claims this is a one-time use case, but who is to say that this couldn’t open Pandora’s Box, which couldn’t be closed again?” he asked.

Given that other governmental organizations — notably the National Security Agency — have been called out for surveillance programs that in some cases were conducted with the support of tech firms, it isn’t hard to see why Apple would take a hard line approach this time around.

“Absolutely, it is a concern in the age of big data, where so much information is out there, and there is this increasingly sense of paranoia — some of it rightly so — that anything you put out there could be susceptible to prying eyes,” said TechSavvy’s Steinberg.

Technological tools “can be used for good or bad by those who choose to use them,” he added.

The more powerful encryption is, and the more difficult it is to break, the more useful it can be for carrying out clandestine operations and for other disreputable purposes,” Steinberg noted.

Orchestrated Moves

Apple has demonstrated that it’s one of the least spontaneous vendors in the marketplace when it comes to reacting to issues such as this one, noted Pund-IT’s King.

“Virtually everything the company does is orchestrated, and it would be silly to think that any statement Apple or its executives make hasn’t been vetted by PR and legal teams,” he pointed out.

“The company’s request for a ‘commission’ to study the FBI request seems like little more than a delaying tactic, but that’s not surprising given the size of the stakes,” said King. “If Apple obeys the court order, it seems likely that the company’s business will be injured — particularly in overseas markets, including China, that it hopes will drive next-generation growth.”

Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who has covered consumer electronics, technology, electronic entertainment and fitness-related trends for more than a decade. His work has appeared in more than three dozen publications, and he is the co-author of Careers in the Computer Game Industry (Career in the New Economy series), a career guide aimed at high school students from Rosen Publishing. You can connect with Peter on Google+.

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