Why Apple is correct in fighting court order to hack iPhone

passcodeBy Larry Magid

Since the news broke Tuesday night, I’ve done a lot of live radio and TV interviews about the battle going on between the FBI and Apple and almost every news anchor I spoke with expressed mixed feelings about the case. Just about everyone sympathized with the FBI’s and the court’s intentions, while also being at least somewhat supportive of Apple’s stance against giving the government a “back door” to its customer’s iPhones.

This particular battle began Tuesday night after a federal judge ordered Apple to create software to help federal cops bypass iPhone security so that they could get information from the iPhone of San Bernardino terrorist Syed Rizwan Farook, who along with his wife, shot and killed 14 people in December. But the encryption war between Silicon Valley tech companies and federal officials has been raging for months with officials, including FBI Director James Comey, arguing that tech companies should provide the government with the ability to break the strong encryption built into many products to help thwart terrorism and other violent crimes.

In this case, the government isn’t asking Apple to remove the encryption, but to create software, essentially a special version of its iOS operating system, that would disable a security feature that erases the phone’s data after 10 unsuccessful attempts to enter a passcode. That would allow the FBI to connect a computer to the phone to use “brute force” to enter multiple passcodes in the hope of getting into the phone.

The FBI couldn’t have picked a better case to stake its claim for help from Apple to unlock a phone that might shed light on a crime. Who wouldn’t’ support the government’s goal of trying to find out more about this particular act of terrorism and to gather every shred of evidence that might not only give us more information about the San Bernardino attack, but possibly help thwart future attacks?

Even Apple CEO Tim Cook, in an open letter to customers, expressed “great respect for the professionals at the FBI” and acknowledged “we believe their intentions are good.” But he vowed to fight the order, arguing that “the U.S.government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create. They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone.”

Cook makes the case that encryption and other built-in security measures are vital features of the iPhone to protect the personal information people store on their devices that can include health and financial data, private conversations, our calendars, “even where we have been and where we are going.” He said that any efforts to break those security measures, even if they are designed for this one specific phone, could put tens of millions of people at risk.

“Once the information is known, or a way to bypass the code is revealed, the encryption can be defeated by anyone with that knowledge,” he said.

I suspect this will be a big topic of conversation the first week in March when thousands of security experts gather in San Francisco for the annual RSA conference. I’ve attended sessions at previous RSA conferences where some of the world’s leading cryptologists have expressed strong concern over government efforts to bypass security measures.

The White House is pushing back. At a press conference, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said that the government is “not asking Apple to redesign its product or to create a new back door to one of their products,” but “simply asking for something that would have an impact on this one device.” Still, as Cook points out, once this software is written, it could be used on other devices and possibly get into the hands of criminals who could use it on millions of devices. There is also the danger of this software getting into the hands of foreign agents, perhaps those working for China.

Not surprisingly, a lot of organizations and companies have come to Apple’s defense. Google CEO Sundar Pichai tweeted, “Forcing companies to enable hacking could compromise users’ privacy.” In other tweets, Pichai pointed out that Google, like Apple and other companies, “give law enforcement access to data based on valid legal orders,” but “that’s wholly different than requiring companies to enable hacking of customer devices & data. Could be a troubling precedent.” The head of Facebook-owned WhatsApp vigorously defended Apple and argued in a Facebook post, “We must not allow this dangerous precedent to be set. Today our freedom and our liberty is at stake.”

Some people are taking to the streets. The organization Fight for the Future has organized rallies at Apple stores around the country and, according to spokesperson Evan Greer, “Dozens of people, ranging from privacy advocates to casual iPhone users, rallied in front of Apple’s flagship store in San Francisco” on Wednesday night with more rallies planned for stores in other cities.

While I respect those who back the government in this case, I’m standing with Tim Cook. Of course, I want to thwart terrorism but part of the battle against extremists is for freedom loving people around the world to not allow the terrorists to “win” by letting our own governments take away our liberties or jeopardize our personal security and privacy.

Larry Magid is the president and CEO of ConnectSafely.