To comply, or not to comply, that is the question

That afternoon on the 16th, I went to Apple’s website attempting to find some deals on MacBook Pro and iPhone with grief. I saw a small link “An important message to our customer”. Usually, if there is an “important message” posted by Apple, it means something big is up. Not an exception this time.

Apple’s CEO Tim Cook confirmed that the company will contest a court order to help the FBI to unlock and access the data inside the phone belonging to San Bernardino gunman Syed Rizwan Farook. Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik killed 14 people and died in a shootout with police in San Bernardino. The massacre happened last December and the FBI has been trying to access the iPhone 5c since then but got no progress. The phone is locked with a password. And because of Apple’s security feature of wiping all data on the phone if one types the password wrong ten times, the FBI did not want to take the chance. Thus, the FBI, under the jurisdiction of the All Writs Act of 1789, asked the court to order Apple to “create” a new iPhone operating system, shutting down all the security features, and install it into Farook’s phone. Although the FBI and the Government assured that they only want to access this particular phone using this operating system, but Tim Cook argued that this is a “threat to data security” and a “dangerous precedent”. He believed that “FBI’s intentions are good.” However, he said that it “would be wrong” for the FBI to “force” Apple to build a backdoor into their products. “We fear that this demand would undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect.”

Bernardino Shooting | AP/JAE C. HONG

When the most influential technology giant fighting against one of the most powerful law enforcement agencies in the world, it is hard not to draw public attention. So, should Apple comply with the court order signed off by Judge Pym or should it appeal this decision? The answer is: it definitely should challenge this order.

It really has to do with three aspects: technicality, legality, and morality.

Can Apply create this tool to remove its own security features? Yes. As I have explained int he second paragraph, the FBI essentially is asking for a special operating system that it can “replace” the current one installed on Farook’s phone to bypass all the security features Apple set. According to a security firm Trail of Bits, “all of the FBI’s requests are technically feasible” and Apple is fully able to comply with the order.

That leads us to the next question: is the FBI’s request justified under the law? The answer is still yes. The U.S. assistant attorneys working on this case cited All Writs Act of 1789, which enables the court to “issue all writs necessary or appropriate in aid of their respective jurisdictions and agreeable to the usages and principles of law.” The law itself is very brief (only 2 enacting clauses) and very broad (look at the text, nothing in the specification but vague language). This Act generally acts as a last resort when all available measures are tried by the law enforcement agency but gained no progress. Hence, the court order is legally justified.

Yet, is it morally justified? The FBI’s intention is good. Their purpose for this is purely to solve the “biggest terrorism investigation on American soil since 911” (CNN, Dec 19, 2015). It is really justified somewhat based on our no-tolerance-attitude towards terrorism. On the other hand, if we really think about this, don’t you think it is a little bit scary? As Mr. Cook has claimed that this would create an unprecedented case law allowing the government to easily unlock anyone’s iPhone and access their data. They may also “extend this breach of privacy and demand that Apple build surveillance software to intercept your messages, access your health records or financial data, track your location, or even access your phone’s microphone or camera without your knowledge.”

The government is essentially asking Apple to undermine its own security technologies that protect its customers and its own corporation. “The same engineers who built strong encryption into the iPhone to protect our users would, ironically, be ordered to weaken those protections and make our users less safe,” claimed Mr. Cook. He also states that Apple cannot find any precedent that “an American company being forced to expose its own customers to a greater risk of attack.”

Furthermore, Apple customers’ digital security is at stake, as there would be a tool out there that can shut down all security measures established on an iPhone, allowing uninvited “guests” to know every detail on the phone and control the entire device.

There is a growing distrust of both the government and the law enforcement agencies that is built in the past decade by the public. Edward Snowden’s whistle-blow on PRISM (the secret mass surveillance project initiated by the NSA) made it worse. If Apple creates this system, a backdoor for the FBI to use on this phone, the public will develop a general speculation of if the FBI is only going to use this tool on this particular phone. Or will other intelligence agencies (CIA, Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA), NSA alike) get their dirty hands on this. Not alone the risk of this operating system being leaked to criminals or other country’s intelligence agencies. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) shared this concern, “if the FBI can force Apple to build a key, you can be sure authoritarian regimes like China and Russia will turn around and force Apple to hand it over to them.” It poses a great security risk to our civil liberty and rights, personal safety and privacy, as well as data protection.

So what will happen in the next couple of months? In my opinion, Apple’s appeal will not be successful and it will be forced to comply with the court order under the All Writs Act. Nevertheless, it has to take all possible measures to ensure the FBI only has the ability to apply this operation system in this particular case. Likewise making sure this operation system is destroyed completely and unconditionally after it is used. In the meantime, the FBI needs to assure the public that our worries on personal privacy invasion are nothing but paranoia.

Again, it is understandable where the FBI is coming from. Nonetheless, it is still a dangerous start. The whole Apple versus the FBI thing is not just about privacy versus security. “It’s about permanently weakening digital security for millions of people.” (Sen. Wyden)

Lisa Benson, Washington Post Writers Group

Photographed by Christopher Vaive


Jeffrey Qi | Vancouver, BC

Special Columnist for Shanghai Student Post and its partner Shanghai Daily on international issues and Canadian politics.


The content of this article does not reflect the official opinion of the Shanghai Student Post and/or Shanghai Daily. Responsibility for the information and views expressed therein lies entirely with the author(s).

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