FBI v. Apple: Grave implications for every company that writes code

Image: Yuri Samoilov / license / no changes

A closer look at court filings in the FBI’s battle with Apple reveals a government strategy with implications far beyond Apple and a single iPhone. If successful in their quest to force Apple to create a weakened version of its software, the government’s actions would have a devastating impact on small businesses across the country that make the vast majority of apps that make smartphones so useful in our lives.

Here are the facts:

· The government took Apple to court, demanding that it modify the operating system software of an iPhone to allow the government to bypass data security protections that are installed on the phone used by one of the San Bernardino attackers.

· Apple filed a motion to fight the government’s order, arguing the judge in the case had overstepped her authority and that the FBI’s demands would force the company to write a new software to facilitate the hacking of phones. This week, a New York judge agreed, ruling in favor of Apple in a similar case.

· The FBI was rebuked on Capitol Hill for bungling its attempts to unlock the phone. This cost them access to the phone’s data. Because of these mistakes, the FBI is trying to force Apple to modify its software to disable certain protections.

The FBI claims that this is an isolated one-off case — that Apple is only being asked to unlock one phone. Unfortunately for the FBI’s narrative, several other law enforcement officials have said that they, too, have phones they want unlocked, phones that have nothing to do with terrorism or acts of violence.

Even more alarming for every company that writes code, the Justice Department filing states that Apple must grant them access by, “modifying an operating system.” More specifically, if you create software, the government can ask you to modify any part of your software to help them gain access to data.

This government power would not just be for the Apples of the world, but for every single app developer and software company in the United States. The court order establishes a precedent explaining that it can compel any company to re-engineer its software to provide government access. It’s more than a slippery slope, this is an avalanche that could freeze American innovation.

Small software companies make most of the apps we use on our phones everyday. In the $120 billion app economy, over four-fifths of the top-grossing companies are small businesses, and 82 percent are from U.S. areas outside Silicon Valley.

Innovators can succeed anywhere in the country because apps are available through the cloud which, when encrypted, offers greater security than most home computers. These successful, small companies cannot remain viable, however, if required to create a weaker, less secure version of each software release for the government.

Consumers trust app makers to safeguard their most personal information — how much money they have in the bank, what medications they’ve been prescribed, even who they’re chatting with on a dating app. Through privacy policies and security features like encryption, app companies set contractual agreements to keep their customers’ private data safe.

What will happen to the next Slack or Instagram or Venmo when any law enforcement officer can compel the company to not just give up data, but change its software to aid in surveillance?

And it’s not just app makers that would be impacted. Software is everywhere. It powers the dashboards in our cars, manages the temperature in our thermostats, and makes it possible for our wearables to help us stay fit.

The ubiquity of software that impacts us every day underscores the alarming scope of the FBI overreach in its case against Apple. By claiming the authority to make a company modify its software, the government is establishing its right to force its way into almost any electronic product we use.

Before a lower court takes action that dramatically undermines our nation’s online security, we should heed the advice of the FBI Director Comey when he said this issue, “should be resolved by the American people deciding how we want to govern ourselves.”

We govern ourselves by electing representatives to Congress and the White House. We stand at the precipice of fundamentally compromising citizens’ security. The elected body of the people is where decisions of this magnitude must be made.

Update: The App Association filed an amicus brief in support of Apple.

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