On February 16, Apple was ordered to unlock the phone of the San Bernardino shooter. On the surface, it appears a mundane instance of corporate and legal controversy, but in reality the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has brought forth what seems a potential precedent battle for encryption and data privacy.
The debate of safety versus privacy is as old as the inception of democracy. The general argument is simple: to gain safety, one must give up privacy. Indeed, this principle was put into place after September 11, 2001, in the form of the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act (PATRIOT Act). This act allowed the federal government, specifically the National Security Agency (NSA), to collect internet traffic and data in order to find and eliminate terrorists. In doing so, the government collected information from individuals without a warrant in what was seen by many as a violation of the Fourth Amendment. In 2015, with the passage of the Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ending Eavesdropping, Dragnet-collection and Online Monitoring Act (FREEDOM Act), the PATRIOT Act was amended to prevent this bulk collection of data and reinstate the necessity of a warrant.
The PATRIOT Act is an important context for the current debate as the federal government no longer has unilateral authority to access people’s information stored by computers. While this act may seem to have little relation to the unlocking the San Bernardino shooters phone, it does because of the nature of what the FBI is demanding.
In the wake of this demand, Apple CEO Tim Cook posted a public letter explaining Apple’s refusal of the FBI’s order to open the phone. Therein he stated:
“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.”
According to Tim Cook, doing so would “undeniably create a backdoor.” In short, Apple’s cooperation could mean that any iPhone could be unlocked by the federal government. This is the essence of what makes this case so important— it’s a decision that will set a precedent to provide this unlocking tool to any government agency with a warrant. There are already over 200 cases waiting to use this key if the FBI is successful in its case against Apple.
The matter is complicated by the issues of foreign powers. Should the United States force Apple to unlock the phone, it would provide legal standing for other nations, such as Russia and China, to force the unlocking of phones— something they’ve been attempting for some time. In China specifically, this could lead to deaths, given the nation’s propensity for executing those in violation of government policy.
Despite the controversy, the case moves forward with both Apple and FBI making their respective cases before Congress. A variety of people have come out on either side of the issue; Bill Gates publicly supported the FBI and Google and Facebook has backed Apple. The question of whether Apple can even open the phone remains, but this is rather beside the point as the issue now stands at the brink of setting a precedent.