IN a fiercely competitive industry, it isn’t often that technology companies come together to support one of their own. Yet this is just what Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and about 29 other leading Internet, social media and technology companies did this month in a case that pits Apple against the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
This unlikely story began in December 2015 in the aftermath of a deadly mass shooting that killed 14 people and wounded 22 others at a San Bernardino, California health center. The shooters, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, a married couple, died hours after the attack in a shootout with police, but investigators want to know if they acted alone. The key, the authorities say, may be locked inside the iPhone 5c that Farook used. Last month, to a federal court, where a judge has ordered Apple to break into its own phone.
Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook opposed the order on the grounds that doing so would endanger the safety and privacy of all iPhone users.
“Up to this point, we have done everything that is both within our power and within the law to help them,” Cook wrote on the company’s website. “But now the US government has asked us for something... we consider too dangerous to create. They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone.
“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.
“The FBI may use different words to describe this tool, but make no mistake: Building a version of iOS that bypasses security in this way would undeniably create a backdoor. And while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control.”
The list of companies who agree on this issue reads like a who’s who of the technology world, and includes Amazon, Box, Cisco, Dropbox, Evernote, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Mozilla, Nest, Pinterest, Slack, Snapchat, Whatsapp and Yahoo, which filed a brief of animus curae (friend of the court) in support of Apple.
Like Apple, the companies questioned the FBI’s use of the All Writs Act of 1789, to compel a technology company to bypass its encryption protection would set a dangerous precedent that would affect the entire industry. It would be dangerous, they added, to extend the 227-year-old law to cover situations that were never envisioned when the law was first drafted.
Apple is clear that the FBI demand poses a threat to the privacy of all users.
“The implications of the government’s demands are chilling,” Cook said. “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. The government could extend this breach of privacy and demand that Apple build surveillance software to intercept your messages, access your health records or financial data, track your location, or even access your phone’s microphone or camera without your knowledge.”
The federal court is likely to decide on Apple’s appeal later this month, but no matter how it rules, the case is likely to be stuck in the appeals process for a few years, particularly since Apple has said it is ready to go all the way to the Supreme Court.
In the meantime, people who feel strongly enough about their privacy can add their voice to an e-mail petition by Access Now, an organization that defends and extends the digital rights of users at risk around the world. The campaign, called “Stand Up for Encryption: No Backdoors,” sends an email to US President Barack Obama, and can be found on Access Now’s website at accessnow.org
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This week saw the passing of the inventor of e-mail, Roy Tomlinson at 74. Tomlinson was working for a research company called Bolt, Beranek and Newman, which played a big role in developing Arpanet, the predecessor of the Internet, when he came up with the idea in 1971 of sending electronic messages from one network to another—and for using the @ symbol in e-mail addresses. Chin Wong