Apple CEO Tim Cook may be one smart guy but he demonstrated that even the elite of the tech community can make a bad judgment now and then. The one he made, however, was a doozy. By fighting the FBI’s request for aid in opening an iPhone he may have opened all the phones of the world to government snoopers.
Initially, the FBI asked Apple to find a way to open the iPhone of one of those involved in the San Bernardino massacre. The purpose was to see if it contained information vital to the search for co-conspirators or for anything else that might have led to others involved. The bureau only wanted Apple to devise a method of defusing the phone feature that would erase all data if too many wrong passwords were attempted in an effort to mine the information inside the phone.
Cook, however, turned the request into a gigantic threat to the privacy of every phone owner worldwide. He made a genuine sounding appeal for a protection of an individual’s privacy. What the bureau was asking, according to Cook, was more of a threat to phone owners than to Apple, although he also noted that by doing what the feds asked would lessen public confidence in Apple.
Cook and Apple were supported by a host of major tech companies, all decrying the threat to individual privacy. Privacy is a genuine concern from an individual standpoint. But to have the business community, which has invaded privacy in many ways, raise that issue was a stretch.
When the feds went to court to seek an order forcing Apple to produce the security override, Apple stood ready to fight a legal battle that would have taken months, or longer, to be resolved. In the meantime, the purpose of the FBI’s desire to enter the phone in question would have been negated by the lengthy delay.
All that ended when an unnamed third party presented to the bureau a solution to the touchy problem of opening the phone without erasing the desired content inside. When the government was convinced that the method proposed would work, it dropped its court case.
So where did Cook and Apple goof?
Cook reasoned originally that if Apple figured out a way to defeat the security device without destroying the messages inside the phone and gave that to the government, the method of unlocking the phone would then be used endlessly, worldwide, and privacy would be gone.
Apple could, however, have devised a method to open the phone, done so itself, and turned the contents over to the bureau. Only Apple would have known how it could be done. While there would have been a precedent leading to similar requests from other law enforcement agencies in the future, it is unlikely any run-of-the-mill cases would be entitled to a similar response from Apple. The San Bernardino case was especially significant. But if later cases did warrant an opening of a phone, that too could be done by Apple.
Now, however, a government agency has the know-how to do what Apple could have done but refused to do. The FBI is likely to be more sympathetic to requests for the key to opening secured phones than is Apple. What Apple feared – a widespread loss of privacy – is now likely to take place.
An even greater concern is that with the knowledge that the security feature can be broken, the bad guys may use that to their own benefit. Some phone tech geek may join up with the baddies for financial gain.
If it was dangerous to have the key to opening a phone in government hands, how much worse is it that criminals may soon have that power as well?