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FBI-Apple Inc. Standoff Reportedly Spurs Facebook, Alphabet to Encryption Action

By Tim Brugger - Mar 24, 2016 at 1:01PM

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The issue isn't going away.

As Apple (AAPL -1.80%) continues its battle with the FBI over its refusal to build the U.S. government a "back door" that circumvents the security of its iPhones, its tech brethren have made it clear which side of the argument they fall on.

The FBI wants access to the iPhone of Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the people who killed 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif., in early December. Though a surprising number of Americans side with the FBI -- 51% of U.S. adults surveyed by the Pew Research Center in February said Apple should "unlock" the iPhone -- some of the biggest names in technology disagree. In fact, rumor has it Facebook (META -1.64%) and Alphabet (GOOG -2.57%) (GOOGL -2.45%), to name a couple, are doing more than publicly siding with Apple against the government: Both are reportedly actively taking steps to upgrade their own data encryption.

Based on the FBI's vigor in pursuing Apple's compliance, the moves by other tech giants to enhance their existing encryption systems will almost certainly put them in the U.S. government's crosshairs. Despite recent developments that indicate the FBI may have found a way to hack into the phone without Apple's help -- which could make the current FBI-Apple court case moot -- it is certain the tech world has not heard the last of this "data security vs. national security" legal debate.

Image source: Apple.

Try and crack this
As noted in CEO Tim Cook's Feb. 16 letter to iFans, Apple was forthcoming with the FBI following the San Bernardino attack. The company supplied the information law enforcement requested, and made its engineers available to the government to provide what assistance they could. But Apple drew the line at developing a new iOS specifically designed to circumvent an iPhone's security and install it on Farook's iPhone.

"In the wrong hands, this software -- which does not exist today -- would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession," Cook wrote.

Apple isn't the only company grappling with these issues. As Facebook's WhatsApp approaches 1 billion monthly average users (MAUs), the world's most popular messaging app has already had a run-in with law enforcement officials over security protocols. The Brazilian government recently demanded WhatsApp release data to help it solve a pending drug trafficking case. Facebook exec Diego Dzodan spent a night in jail for not succumbing to a judge's demands. Turns out, Facebook intends to make it even harder to break into WhatsApp's data.

WhatsApp already incorporates end-to-end encryption to protect its users' privacy, but In the coming weeks, WhatsApp's will add encryption to its voice calling feature to its existing data security measures, according to a report in The Guardian, which also says Facebook's other messaging property, Messenger, is also in line for an upgrade to its security features.

Not to be outdone, Alphabet has been working on a secure, encrypted email project that has taken on a new level of urgency following Apple's dispute with the FBI, according to The Guardian report. Called "End-to-End," Alphabet began exploring the new email feature two years ago. End-to-End would allow users to send missives that could only be decoded by the sender and recipient. Apparently, efforts to bring more effectively secure email to the masses are getting another, closer look.

It should be noted that Facebook and Alphabet were already addressing information security prior to the Apple-FBI situation. However, their efforts have taken on added seriousness in light of recent events.

On second thought
Even if the FBI is able to find its backdoor without the help of Apple, the bigger issue remains: What happens when Apple, Facebook, or Alphabet finds itself facing similar demands down the road?

As George Washington University law professor Orin Kerr told NPR: "If the government can get into this phone, it just kicks the can down the road a year or two." Now, add in the fact that Facebook and Alphabet are actively improving their respective encryption technologies to further protect customers, and you can bet we haven't heard the last from the U.S. government, or the world's technology leaders.

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