What’s at Stake in the Apple vs. FBI Battle?

Data concept: Closed Padlock on digital background

The encryption issue is not new. It started in the ’90s when encryption became more commonplace in consumer products, and has escalated to a full-scale, highly public debate between Apple – an industry leader in smart phone/mobile technology – and the FBI. Here is a concise look at what is at stake.

  • Technology companies have always developed and upgraded security methods to keep hackers from accessing private data. Since Edward Snowden went public with reports of government surveillance, these companies have changed their security protocols to protect users against government efforts to access private data.
  • Federal wire-tapping laws already give law enforcement access to data handled by phone carriers. This legislation doesn’t cover tech companies, and those companies are fighting hard to keep it that way.
  • Encryption is the magic that makes personal data safe. Once data is protected by encryption, the only way to access it is through the encryption key. No one – not even the manufacturer of the device or its software – can access the information without the encryption key.
  • Back in 2015, the FBI’s chief said the agency wanted back door access to encrypted data. When he did so, a howl of protest went out from security and technology professionals, as well as reporters and human rights activists, pointing out that doing so opened a virtual Pandora’s Box of problems – most particularly creating an enormous security risk as soon as a manufacturer weakened the water-tight nature of encryption. To the technology industry, the problems inherent in providing the possibility of such access far outweighed the advantage of doing so.
  • The FBI is not asking for Apple to help law enforcement break the encryption on iPhones. They want Apple to tamper with a security feature that makes it virtually impossible to guess the pin used to encrypt an iPhone. For this to happen, a backdoor would have to be built into the encryption protocol. Opponents believe that doing so would immediately open up a massive new opportunity for leaks or theft that potentially would give cyber-crooks and cyber-terrorists a chance to steal data at an unprecedented level. FBI supporters argue that such a feature already exists – a troubleshooting system that allows the company to update software without needing to know subscribers’ passwords. Industry analysts expect Apple to ramp up security on this particular feature in an effort to thwart the FBI’s proposal to highjack it for surveillance purposes.
  • The battle between big tech companies and the government is being fought in the media with both sides using emotional arguments to influence public opinion and obtain the solution they want. The FBI has chosen a public fight over access to a dead terrorist’s smart phone and has tapped the outrage of relatives of victims of the San Bernardino shootings to support its efforts to force tech giants like Apple and Google to make encrypted data accessible to law enforcement. On its part, Apple is running a hard-hitting PR effort, most recently evidenced by CEO Tim Cook’s open letter to customers, which appeared as paid commentary in prime media outlets.

The battle between the FBI and Apple has already reached the headlines and the law courts. Observers believe Congressional involvement will be necessary to resolve this issue in any meaningful way.