We have witnessed in the past few days, a heat debate about the judicial requests by the FBI to force Apple, the giant corporation, to open up backdoors on the iPhone. The FBI is trying to unlock the iPhone of one of the killers in the mass shooting spree in San Bernardino, California, last December, and insists Apple should, technically, help them doing so.
Apple, on the other hand, rejected, so far, any demand and said that, even though the FBI is trying to access one single device, the development of this limitation in securing access to iPhones could set a dangerous precedent and compromise electronic security and encryption of every device from then on. Here is what Apple said about the case in an open letter to their customers:
“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.”
Backdoor is a method of bypassing authentication to enter on a device or system. In other words, it’s a master key that gives its holder access to our personal data. It’s no secret that the US government, through it’s various agencies, wanted all devices to have this kind of hidden access, and it has now found an opportunity to force this to happen via court order and with the excuse of a real sensitive and violent case under investigation.
It’s unusual to see privacy activists on the same side of companies like Apple or Google, but this is happening now and everyone seems uncomfortable with the situation. Reacting to Apple’s letter, Edward Snowden posted yesterday on Twitter that “The FBI is creating a world where citizens rely on Apple to defend their rights, rather than the other way around.” David Murakami Wood, a well known surveillance scholar said, also on Twitter, that “Big corporations vs. big government is just one Big Brother against another”.
On the technical side, apparently there is a way of protecting the iPhones against unauthorised access, even if a backdoor was built by Apple to help the FBI against its will. On an article to The Intercept, Micah Lee explains how to do so. Lee justifies this saying that
“If it sounds outlandish to worry about government agents trying to crack into your phone, consider that when you travel internationally, agents at the airport or other border crossings can seize, search, and temporarily retain your digital devices — even without any grounds for suspicion. And while a local police officer can’t search your iPhone without a warrant, cops have used their own digital devices to get search warrants within 15 minutes, as a Supreme Court opinion recently noted.”
It seems that, after becoming the holy graal of our personal data for the sake of convenience and a connected life, smartphones are also, finally being turned into one of the ultimate levels of protection to our privacy. Sooner or later, this kind of dispute between agencies with investigatory powers and companies that produce our devices would come to light. It’s highly possible that this is not the last time we will witness this happening. I just hope the debate only grows and things are not dealt with under the table, as sometimes we know they are.