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Everything You Need to Know About Apple's iPhone Encryption Battle

By Daniel B. Kline – Mar 9, 2016 at 7:43PM

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The tech company is fighting the FBI over a request it says would put the privacy of every iPhone user at risk, but both sides have valid points.

Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) has been asked by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to unlock and decrypt the iPhone 5C used by Syed Rizwan Farook, who, along with his wife, Tashfeen Malik, killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California in December 2015.   The FBI's request has been backed by a federal court order from United States Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym. However, according to a letter from CEO Tim Cook, Apple will fight the order -- not because it does not want to help the government investigate the attack, but because it believes complying with it "threatens the security of our customers."

A New York court has since ruled in favor of Apple, saying it does not have to comply with the FBI's request and the issue was also the subject of hearings in the House of Representatives, March 1, where "lawmakers at Tuesday's hearing of the House Judiciary Committee seemed torn over where to draw the line," The New York Times reported.

What is Apple arguing?
Speaking directly to his customers, Cook expressed sorrow at what happened in San Bernadino and noted that Apple has cooperated fully with the investigation to this point. He said his company has only decided to fight the latest request because it would have major unintended consequences.

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.

You can see why the FBI wants Apple to do this, and you can also see the potential dangers that could result if a tool that could unlock and decrypt every iPhone fell into the wrong hands. Cook believes that creating this tool, which the company has acknowledged it could do, would undermine the privacy of not just its users, but the nation in general.

The CEO called the implications of what the government is asking "chilling," and he detailed what he believes would happen if Apple complies. He wrote that creating this backdoor to help investigate this single case would give law enforcement "the power to reach into anyone's device to capture their data."

"The government," continued Cook, "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."

What the FBI is saying
FBI Director James Comey wrote a piece for in which he tried to answer Cook's concerns without actually addressing the technology involved. He said that the agency wanted Apple to disable a feature that causes its phones to more or less self-destruct if enough wrong attempts to enter a password are made. He also said that "the relief we seek is limited and its value increasingly obsolete because the technology continues to evolve," but provided nothing to support that statement, nor any technical sourcing to prove that was true.

Comey elected to play the emotional card -- the idea that nothing else should be considered but the San Bernadino case.

"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," he wrote."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."

The director is not wrong, but neither is Cook. If you believe both are sincere, then it really comes down to a case of whether you believe the possibility of doing some good today outweighs the risk of creating tools for greater evil down the road.

Apple has support
While most companies are likely giving thanks that they don't find themselves between this rock and a hard place, Cook does have some support. Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Alphabet's (NASDAQ: GOOG) (NASDAQ: GOOGL) Google, took to social media to support his rival.

In a series of five tweets, Pichai directed his followers to Cook's letter and essentially agreed with him. His posts said that Google builds secure products designed to protect consumer information, and that it complies with legal orders to give law enforcement access to data. The Apple case, he argued, is not the same thing.

Source: Sundar Pichai's Twitter feed 

Pichai is being brave by bringing Alphabet into this, but his comments show that the tech leader understands that this is not simply an Apple/FBI dispute, but a potential landmark case which will impact Google and others.

This is emotional, but not simple
Any time you have a case which involves the senseless deaths of 14 people, it's hard to look at the big picture. Both Cook and Comey have mostly gone out of the way to be respectful toward each other. They simply disagree on the best way to proceed, and that may be because neither side is 100% right nor 100% wrong. 

Protecting our private information from evil forces that would use it against us is just as important as is protecting it from overzealous law enforcement agencies. It's also important for the FBI to use all the tools available to it when it comes to solving heinous crimes.

It's not the place of Apple to question law enforcement nor is it the place of the FBI to say what the technology implications of its request are. The agency is right to ask and Apple is right to fight against delivering if it truly believes that doing so would lead to more harm in the long-term. Both sides have a point and right and wrong become very murky when it's possible that short-term right leads to a greater long-term wrong.

Taking this stand may hurt Apple because the American public often responds emotionally and without considering the full ramifications of its actions. That could create a backlash against its products if a widespread perception builds that the company is anti-law enforcement or that it's refusing for competitive rather than ethical reasons. Following this course could hurt Apple in the short-term, but it should help answer similar questions going forward.

This is a case where we need to dial down the rhetoric and let things play out in the courts. Apple has won a court victory, but the FBI is fighting that. Both side can continue filing appeals and that could take this case all the way to the Supreme Court, according to CBS News.

That's probably where this should go because Apple is not supporting terrorists nor is the FBI (at least in this case) looking to invade our collective privacy. What we have here is a case of two entities struggling with the ramifications of rapidly developing technology where existing law and legal precedent may not be enough.

Daniel Kline owns shares of Apple. He has no idea which side is right here or if that such a thing even exists. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Apple. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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