Writing for Lawfare, a not-for-profit, addressing the ongoing standoff between Apple and the FBI over access to the iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters, FBI Director James Comey argued that the issue is actually “quite narrow.”
We simply want the chance, with a search warrant, to try to guess the terrorist’s passcode without the phone essentially self-destructing and without it taking a decade to guess correctly. That’s it. We don’t want to break anyone’s encryption or set a master key loose on the land. I hope thoughtful people will take the time to understand that. Maybe the phone holds the clue to finding more terrorists. Maybe it doesn’t. But we can’t look the survivors in the eye, or ourselves in the mirror, if we don’t follow this lead.
What Comey’s essay omits to mention, is that one-off access is tantamount to access at any time. Apple has received the backing of many in the tech industry — including the founders/CEOs of Twitter, Facebook, Google, Box and others — for refusing to comply with the demand to create bespoke software to enable the FBI to access data on the device — data that even Apple itself cannot access. The company, which said it has provided authorities with all the user information that it has in its possession for the case, argued that compromising its security even just one time is akin to providing a backdoor that authorities could use to gain access to any other Apple device in the future.
“The implications of the government’s demands are chilling. If the government can use the All Writs Act to make it easier to unlock your iPhone, it would have the power to reach into anyone’s device to capture their data,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said in a letter to customers last week.
Comey himself claimed that this tension between upholding user privacy and enabling access to data “should not be resolved by corporations that sell stuff for a living.” Instead, he argued, “it should be resolved by the American people deciding how we want to govern ourselves in a world we have never seen before.”
Reuters reported that a number of San Bernardino victims are preparing to file a brief in support of the government. So while the tech world has mounted a strong argument that the government’s demands are troubling and set a dangerous precedent — as we’ve written a number of times — it appears that public opinion isn’t entirely aligned with Apple and its peers.