Why Apple should comply with the FBI

Why Apple should comply with the FBI

In this debate, GRI asked who is right, Apple or the US government. Alex Harris uses a pro-security argument to explain why Apple should comply with the court order to unlock the iPhone used by one of the suspects in the San Bernardino Terrorist Attack. Read the opposing side here.

A national survey, conducted by the Pew Research Centre (February 18th-21st) found 51% of Americans agree that Apple should comply and assist with the FBI’s investigation. In addition, among those who personally own an iPhone, 47% say that Apple should comply, while 43% were concerned about the implications that it might have on privacy rights. While the utility of surveys and their results always need to be scrutinised, these results undeniably offer a revealing insight into the views of the American public at large concerning the FBI’s investigation.

So, should Apple help the FBI by reverse engineering their own software to access the suspect’s iPhone? First, the FBI asserts that it only needs help unlocking this particular iPhone. Despite what the media and pro-privacy supporters are alleging, this will not necessarily create a precedent to hack all iPhones.

All that is required is for Apple to create a method to disable  the ‘self-destruct’ mechanism present if the password is incorrectly entered enough times, therefore allowing them to ‘guess’ the password an unlimited number of times with the use of software without the iPhone’s contents being wiped.

The FBI is asking for access to one device, a device that belonged to a deceased terrorist in an attack that left 14 dead and 22 wounded. While it is not certain that information on the iPhone could lead to other terrorist cells, especially if those involved were ‘lone-wolf’ actors, it holds greater implications.

It shows that the government is willing pursue every lead in the fight against terrorism and the continued protection of its citizens. Even if the phone contains no useful intelligence, the legal battle that has been fought to gain access is a symbolic victory for the American Government on the offensive. The case was raised at a recent Republican presidential debatewhere Ted Cruz asserted that “Apple doesn’t have a right to defy a valid court order in a terrorism investigation”. This statement, alongside the aforementioned statistics would suggest that America, where national security is threatened, places public safety before privacy.

The renowned cryptographer, Adi Shamir, voiced his support for the government in this case, agreeing that it has nothing to do with ‘back doors’. Instead, “they are dead; their constitutional rights are not involved. This is a major crime where 14 people were killed”. This is not the first case of its kind and Apple has complied with the FBI before. As Shamir wrote, “my advice is that they comply this time and wait for a better test case to fight where the case is not so clearly in favour of the FBI”.

Source: Eileen Filmus, GRI

In terms of the legal framework, The Fourth Amendment permits a ‘search and seizure’ due to probable cause (in this case, ‘certain’ cause) and authorisation of the law-courts. Furthermore, the actual ‘owner’ of the iPhone is the government department that gave it to Syed Farook. This department has given their full consent for the FBI to view any information on the phone.

Indeed, for the privacy-conscious, this could actually be a step in the right direction. It is clear that a flaw exists within the iPhone, particularly the model 5C used by Farook. If these devices are vulnerable to attack, as has been suggested, then the legal ruling should allow this flaw to be exploited on this individual case. This could be a landmark case, where the everyday consumer, as highlighted in the Pew Research Centre statistics, is now aware of the encryption and privacy of their devices. This should encourage all technological companies to create devices that do not contain inherent flaws that could be manipulated.

Moreover, rather than solely encouraging the government to manipulate such technological flaws, this could be a useful step towards a more cooperative future. Rather than the public and private sectors opposing each other in court, this could be a ruling that encourages unity between the two. Perhaps it is indicative that, privacy aside, both sectors should place the security of their citizens and consumers first.  

Beyond talk of privacy and encryption, it is especially important to not forget those who were killed in the attack. Stephen Larson, a former federal judge, is responsible for representing the families of those who were killed. Larson declared that while “Apple defended its stance by invoking the public’s right to privacy”, this is not what the case is about. Instead, “this case is about the United States’ ability to successfully execute a search warrant… on an iPhone used by a terrorist”. Privacy-supporters would assert the necessity of placing the privacy of an individual before the security of the state. Perhaps, as these attacks continue to increase, this necessity will change.

This case is more important than any intelligence that is ultimately located on the phone. It is about whether security should be placed first before privacy. Despite what the media suggests, this is not a ruling that will open all iPhones to be exploited by the US Government at its own will. The next hearing on the case is March 22nd, and the debate between privacy and security will continue.  

GRI Debates provide critical insight into the world’s most challenging political risk topics. Through well-balanced opinion based articles, GRI Debates offer a forum for deeper discussion into how major political decisions and security challenges affect markets, investment, and economic growth across the globe.

About Author

Alex Harris

Alex Harris is a Political Risk Analyst at GRI and currently works part-time in the Royal United Services Institute. He is studying for his MSc in International Relations, having completed his BA in History at King's College London. Alex is focusing specifically upon themes of terrorism, surveillance, cyber-security and privacy.