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Apple vs. FBI: How Important is Cyber Security?

Apple vs. FBI: How Important is Cyber Security?

Cyber security can be defined by the University of Maryland University College as “information technology security,” which focuses on protecting computers, networks, programs and data from unintended or unauthorized access, change or destruction.” This phrase has become increasingly common in society’s rhetoric in the past few decades given technology’s prevalence in daily life. Much of our personal information is stored on some device somewhere in the world, and we rely on the technology industry to create devices that are capable of protecting this information from the outside world. That being said, a case incredibly significant to the importance of cyber security in today’s socio-political realm has been developing in the United States.  

On December 2nd this past year, a married couple, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, opened fire at a regional center in San Bernardino, California, killing fourteen people and injuring twenty-two. Syed Farook worked for the government in San Bernardino, and the U.S. Government, in investigating the shooting, was able to recover Farook’s government-issued phone While it may appear that the recovery is an informational victory for the FBI, the issue for the agency becomes predicated around how it will access the information because the phone is encrypted. Because of this, the FBI contacted Apple asking for a software that essentially unlocks the iPhone from a “back door” so that none of the information is tampered with.

Here is where this case becomes interesting, and could become one that sets a precedent for future cyber security issues.



On February 17th, Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, responded to the FBI’s request to create this software by making it publicly known that neither he, nor anyone at Apple, could support usurping the law by completing this action. This statement was published on Apple’s website for all to see, and within the letter, Cook highlights what the possible consequences of creating a “backdoor” to its operating system could be. Cook explicitly states, “The government is asking Apple to hack our own users and undermine decades of security advancements that protect our customers from sophisticated hackers and cybercriminals.” Naturally, this letter elicited responses from politicians and leading tech industry professionals, such as the creator of the popular messaging application WhatsApp, who declared in a Facebook status that he stands behind Tim Cook and Apple in the case against the FBI.

As this story develops, it is important to note that there has not been very much legal action between the two parties. Much of the back-and-forth between industry professionals like Tim Cook and the FBI and its supporters -including Bill Gates - is PR-related, polarizing the American public.

There is much speculation about who is right in the tug-of-war between FBI and the Silicon Valley tech empire that is Apple, but it appears that Apple’s reasoning overrides the government’s need for security information. Of course, having said that, there is no denying that intelligence, especially cyber intelligence, is crucial in maintaining the nation’s security from potential enemies all over the world. The overall implications, as Cook highlighted, become the larger issue in this case, however, because any mishap in handling the “back door” software could affect millions of people across the globe. In a hypothetical “worst-case” scenario, someone with the information about how to decode Apple’s standard encryption mechanisms could potentially hack into everyone’s phones, tablets, and computers and access personal information.

Recent legal developments have further augmented Apple and Tim Cook’s case about not creating the backdoor operating system. A U.S. District Court in New York sided with Apple in a ruling about another iPhone cybersecurity case stating that U.S. Government cannot use the All Writs Act of 1911, which states that the government can increase its jurisdiction in irremediable cases, to force Apple to create the key to unlock the backdoor. While this case cannot set precedent in the Supreme Court, it highlights the issue at hand, and places a fair amount of momentum in Apple’s favor.

Contrarily, there is the argument that the FBI’s request of Apple’s expertise is an exclusive case, meaning that its use of the backdoor software will be limited to Farook’s phone, and that there will not be any other instances of the software being used for the sake of national security. That appears to miss the point, however, because it only requires one instance in which this way of bypassing encryption is placed in the wrong hands in the wrong moment.

Thus, while this case is still in its formative stages, it remains to be seen if and how the Supreme Court will rule on a hotly-contested case such as this. Considering that the Court will now most likely be split on a majority of its cases until a new Justice is appointed, it is difficult to pinpoint how the conclusion will play out. It may be important for Apple to press the issue in this case as quickly as possible in the U.S. District Court for Central California, taking into account the fact that the Ninth District is comprised of predominantly liberal judges who may rule in their favor.

The overbearing issue is the push-and-pull between privacy and national security, and while both sides of the argument maintain validity, the ramifications of Apple’s stance are important to note. If the previously mentioned “worst-case” scenario somehow becomes “the” case, then both our privacy and our national security could be at risk for generations to come. 

- James Sabia

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