The FBI Wants a Dangerous Weapon

On February 16th, 2016, the FBI filed a motion against Apple to gain access to an iPhone of interest in a terrorism investigation. Syed Farook, the owner of the phone, was killed in a shootout with police after he and his wife killed 14 and injured 22, the deadliest single terror attack in the United States since 9/11. The FBI doesn’t currently have access to what is stored on Farook’s government-issued iPhone: in September of 2014, Apple rolled out a new encryption-by-default system which rendered Apple unable to give an owner’s data away to authorities. It pairs with a feature that automatically deletes the phone’s data after 10 incorrect passcode attempts, creating an uncrackable black box for the government.

Rather than to crack the encryption itself, the FBI instead had a court order Apple to help brute-force (try one passcode, then another, until they get it right) into the phone, gaining access to whatever data might be there. Apple decided to take a stand rather than comply, in a move supported by Google, Twitter, and Facebook executives. In a letter to customers, Tim Cook wrote:

“The U.S. government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create … [This] 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.”

Cook’s allegations against government good will aren’t ill-founded, especially in the wake of the Snowden revelations. Classified programs like the NSA’s clandestine PRISM were revealed to use “gag orders” when retrieving customer’s information from companies like Microsoft, YouTube, and Skype. This meant that the companies were legally forbidden from informing the customer about the investigation, or even reveal the existence of the program. As a target of the PRISM intelligence-gathering program, Apple is seemingly using the lack of a gag order to put the privacy vs. security debate back into the limelight: for public discourse.

The greatest danger of this master-iPhone-key doesn’t lie with the government; instead, it lies with those who handle it. As film production companies have realized, pirating films is far too easy, and software is no exception. Should any single person in possession of the software decide to exploit it — perhaps give it to friends or even publish it on the Internet — both Apple and the government will have succeeded in creating a weapon not even they can control. Corrupt governments with an iron fist, foreign hackers with malicious motives, and the creepy guy on your block can all now further subjugate free journalism, steal your financial information, and gain access to your private world.

The software that the FBI is requesting would be catastrophic in the world we live in today, one where people are increasingly tied to their phones. Your messages to loved ones, pictures of your family, detailed work secrets, personal emails, your entire contact list, and more will be up for grabs, not just your latest crossword or game high score. The government has asked Apple to comply with a request so far reaching and so dangerous that your privacy is teetering on the edge. If the simple existence of a piece of software threatens your entitlement to a private life, this possibility should frighten you. It certainly frightens me.