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How Apple ended up in the government’s encryption crosshairs

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS / 2015

    Apple CEO Tim Cook during an Apple event at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco.

SAN FRANCISCO >> As the maker of trend-setting gadgets like the iPhone and iPad, Apple has changed the way people use technology in their daily lives. Now, after positioning itself as a champion of privacy, the tech giant has sparked a potentially momentous conflict with the federal government over encryption.

For months, Apple CEO Tim Cook has engaged in a sharp, public debate with government officials over his company’s decision to shield the data of iPhone users with strong encryption — essentially locking up people’s photos, text messages and other data so securely that even Apple can’t get at it. Law-enforcement officials from FBI Director James Comey on down have complained that terrorists and criminals may use that encryption as a shield.

Then on Wednesday, Apple found itself in the government’s crosshairs over an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino mass shooters. A federal magistrate ordered Apple to produce software that would help federal investigators hack into that phone — not by breaking the encryption directly, but by disabling other security measures that prevent attempts to guess the phone’s passcode.

Apple has five days to challenge that order, setting the stage for a legal clash that experts say could change the relationship between tech companies and government authorities in the U.S. and around the world.

“This is really a deep question about the power of government to redesign products that we use,” said Ryan Calo, a University of Washington law professor who studies data security and privacy issues.

Many leading tech companies — Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo — were conspicuously silent about the dispute on Wednesday, although some trade groups issued statements endorsing Apple’s position. Google CEO Sundar Pichai also voiced support for Apple in a series of tweets late in the day. “Forcing companies to enable hacking could compromise users’ privacy,” Pichai wrote, adding that the case “could be a troubling precedent.”

While tech companies have spoken against broad government surveillance in the past, the Obama administration has recently sought to enlist the tech industry’s help in fighting terrorism. Several companies have recently heeded the administration’s request for voluntary efforts aimed at countering terrorist postings on social media.

Civil liberties groups warned the fallout from the San Bernardino dispute could extend beyond Apple.

“This is asking a company to build a digital defect, a design flaw, into their products,” said Nuala O’Connor of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington-based group that has criticized government surveillance. In a statement, the center warned that other companies could face similar orders in the future.

Others said a government victory could encourage regimes in China and other countries to make similar requests for access to smartphone data. Apple sells millions of iPhones in China, which has become the company’s second-largest market.

“This case is going to affect everyone’s privacy and security around the world,” said Lee Tien, a staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group in San Francisco.

The case turns on an 18th-century law that the government has invoked to require private assistance with law enforcement efforts. Apple has also challenged a federal search warrant based on the same law in a Brooklyn drug case. Apple has complied with previous orders invoking that law — the All Writs Act of 1789 — although it has argued the circumstances were different.

While experts said the case will likely end up in appeals court, both sides seemed to be framing the debate for a public audience as much as for a judge.

The federal request “is very strategic on their part, to be sure” said Robert Cattanach, a former Justice Department lawyer who handles cyber-security cases for the Dorsey & Whitney law firm. He said it appeared the government took pains to ask only for limited assistance in a mass-murder case that horrified the nation.

Apple’s Cook, however, declared the demand would create what amounts to a “backdoor” in Apple’s encryption software. “If the government can use the All Writs Act to make it easier to unlock your iPhone, it would have the power to reach into anyone’s device to capture their data,” he wrote in an open letter. Cook also pledged respect for law enforcement and outrage over the shootings.

Cook may have no choice but to mount a legal challenge, given his very public commitment to protecting customer data. He’s made that position a part of Apple’s marketing strategy, drawing a contrast with companies like Google and Facebook that sell advertising based on customers’ online behavior.

Apple “can’t be seen now as doing something that would make their products less safe,” said Wendy Patrick, who lectures about business ethics at San Diego State University. “I think everyone saw this issue coming down the pike and Apple always knew it was going to push back when the moment came.”

But in doing so, Apple risks alienating consumers who put a higher value on national security than privacy. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found 82 percent of U.S. adults deemed government surveillance of suspected terrorists to be acceptable. Apple’s stance was already drawing fire Wednesday from GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump and commentators on Fox News.

Only 40 percent of the Pew respondents said it’s acceptable for the government to monitor U.S. citizens, however. The survey also found nearly three-fourths of U.S. adults consider it “very important” to be in control over who can retrieve personal information about them.

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  • Frankly, I do not see what the issue is. The phone is owned by the county – per news reports. That means they have rights to it. They should be able to ask Apple to open it, its their property. Second, Apple doesnt need to give out any security info. Pull the info the feds want then wipe the phone clean.

      • Not at all. Apple is taking a stand aganist another intrusive government survillence program and violation of privacy. You are completely ignorant if you think that the government won’t abuse this. And once Apple makes this possible, every other government will require it to the point that encryption is pointless.

        If you want more government and more big brother, criticize Apple.

        But then again, you’re clearly on the side trying to reduce civil rights and liberties and expand the power of the Federal government.

    • You seem highly unaware of what the 2001 surveillance programs have mutated into.

      If you believe in more government, more surveillance and more big brother, back the FBI on this.

      If you think the COTUS is worth anything, back Apple.

      • Simplistic, illogical comment. There hasn’t been a clearer case of legitimate need for a legally approved government search. Otherwise, the Iphone becomes the secure communications device for every criminal and terrorist group on the planet. To support that amounts to handing these evil SOBs a weapon. Fool.

        • It doesn’t surprise me one bit you will sacrifice freedoms and liberties for the sham illusion of security. And you are completely delusional to believe this will end with one phone. Snowden proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that our own very government, who you would grant more big brother powers to, has abused virtually every single surveillance program powers granted to it since 2001.

          You would have literally billions of people give up their privacy and freedom on the chance that there is something that might help stop terrorism. By your reasoning, we should outlaw firearms. But of course, you won’t agree to that because your internal organization and consistency is that of child’s playpen after several hours.

          And you are clearly uneducated about technology (did you ever send your inbred cousins socks and snacks before they got arrested?). Once Apple does this, every government will force Apple to do it for all sorts of reasons. Including persecution of political dissidents. You clearly don’t understand, or don’t have a problem with that. But then again, you have demonstrated gross ignorance on very topic you post on. Every. Single. One.

        • I do find it utterly hilarious how a tool like you who rages about how Obama’s alleged overreach has no problem pushing an agenda that would allow virtually every government to persecute political dissidents and stamp out dissent via forcing Apple (and then Google and Microsoft) to backdoor encryption.

          You would fit right in with the despots of the world with how much you hate civil liberties. It is obvious you don’t believe the Constitution is worth anything more than toilet paper.

        • I do gotta thank you for this, now I can add that you don’t have a problem with governments forcing tech companies to help them persecute political dissidents to the list of things you either said or are for.

          Seriously, why do you even respond to me anymore? You know you can’t win and you know I’m going to take your asinine and horrific beliefs and repeat them for everyone to read over and over and over again. Your best option here is ignore me because you always end up on the losing end with your reputation sullied into the ground as someone who believes in clearly wrong and utterly reprehensible things.

        • Inability to distinguish is the hallmark of an immature, limited, maladjusted personality. That would be you, choyd, unable to distinguish between the hacking of a single phone clearly used by a known terrorist and possibly linked to terrorists facilitators/co-conspirators vs. some imagined armageddon of personal privacy (of which we already have none due to our zombie like involvement in social media.) Well there it is, your thinking in a nutshell, the entire universe of possibilities boiled down into a profoundly simplistic either-or strawman.

          And, the ad hominem. Boring, juvenile, and unbalanced, Trump-like in terms of ego sensitivity.

        • And I’m not surprised that rather than address my argument, Winston, as usual, relies on personal attacks.

          It is clear, based on Winston’s lack of facts, that he does not understand HOW this works and what the precedent it sets. Nor does he understand (or worse he AGREES) how such a precedent in the US allows despotic nations he so aligns with, to force Apple to utilize such a backdoor to crack the encryption on political dissidents and thus allowing them to stamp out resistance to tyanny. Notice that nothing Winston said addresses those issues at all.

          Nor does Winston want to discuss how EVERY program we give to the Federal government for “security” ends up being used against innocent US citizens. Someone who rages against Obama’s “overreach” has no problem with expanding the very same programs he criticizes Obama on. That’s cognitive dissonance for you. Apparently more government is bad, except when it’s not?

          And for someone to call me simplistic while deliberately ignoring the obvious outcomes is pretty absurd.

          Billions of people should give up their rights and freedoms and liberties in the HOPES that their governments won’t abuse a new power, especially despotic regimes with long histories of repression. Apparently Winston has suddenly found faith in government.

          It is clear that Winston does not care about civil liberties. Nor does he care or even worse, agrees that tech firms should be forced to help oppress political dissidents.

          Funny, wonder if he’ll still be singing this tune when Queen Hillary uses it to repress people she dislikes.

        • FYI, insulting me as being juvenile and simplistic when you cannot even understand the subtext is pretty silly. It’s worse when all of the technical experts disagree with your position as well. One of the most famous iOS hackers came out on BRG stating that once this is allowed, Apple has virtually no recourse to refuse it again.

          Pretty sure that Putin would love to have every location tracking of every journalist and dissident every time they can pulled into for questioning. But what’s so wrong with giving a despot the ability to delve into the financial history, physical tracking and previously hack proof texting of people they want to bury?

          And I see you didn’t even want to address how your argument means we should outlaw firearms. I suppose the only way you can maintain your ideology is to ignore everything that blows planet size holes in it.

        • Run away Winston. Run away as you always do from every challenge and every adversity that you’ve ever come across in your life.

          Run away.

    • The phone may be owned by the county, but it is evidence in a crime and they have no rights to it until such time it is no longer needed by the judicial system.

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