Apple vs. FBI: the Basics of the iPhone Encryption Case

obrBy Betsy — Last Updated: 30 Apr'18 2016-02-26T00:40:08+00:00

Citing a violation of First and Fifth Amendment Constitutional rights, Apple on Thursday filed, as expected, a motion challenging a judge’s order in the iPhone encryption case.  The motion comes in response to an order by a California judge that Apple help the FBI bypass security features on San Bernadino shooter’s Syed Rizwan Farook’s iPhone.  

The Fifth Amendment argument holds that the request violated the company’s Fifth Amendment right to be free from “arbitrary deprivation of its liberty by government.”   The First Amendment portion argues that the order  violated its First Amendment right to free speech, stating that writing code is protected speech under the Constitution.

As the latest scene in the drama plays out, here is a look at the basics of the iPhone encryption case.

Who Is Involved?

On December 2, Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik killed 14 people at a holiday party in San Bernardino, California. They were killed in a gun battle with police.  Investigators discovered that Farook and Malik had smashed other mobile phones and hard drives before the shooting, leaving only a work issued iPhone 5c intact.

The FBI is seeking data on with whom the couple might have communicated and what websites they might have visited in the days before the attack. Specifically, they want to know if the attack was planned in conjunction with Islamic State. 

Apple officials have cooperated with the government to a point.  They provided what information they had available, notably the iCloud backups from the phone.  

However, those backups ended on October 19, leaving several weeks of data to be recovered, a process that can only be done if Apple helps the FBI gain access through the phone’s passcode protection.  

Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym, a Federal District Court in California, on February 16 ordered Apple to provide the assistance needed. Tim Cook, Apple CEO,  responded the next day with a letter to customers stating the order posed a data privacy threat that went beyond this particular phone.

What Is Apple Being Ordered to do?

The phone’s security features include a passcode to unlock the phone.  An auto-erase feature deletes all the data on a device if an incorrect passcode is entered 10 times.  

Tim Cook

The government wants Apple to create a version of its iOS software that would bypass or disable these features. That way, the phone could be subjected to what is called a “brute-force” attack, where a computer will input millions of different passcode combinations until it guesses the right one.

After remarks from those outside the case and responses by the government and Apple, the case will go before a magistrate judge again on March 22 in California.

Why is Apple Objecting to This Order?

The FBI claims specific limits apply to the case, but Apple officials are concerned that it sets a “dangerous precedent”.  Tim Cook, in the letter to customers, stated that the software requested would create a backdoor around security features.

While the government claims the use would be restricted to this one case, and the software would remain in Apple’s possession to do with as they wish, the company says that there is “no way to guarantee such control”.  

Cook also expresses the concern that once the technique has been developed hackers and cybercriminals would find a way to replicate it. 

How Have People Responded?

The iPhone encryption case has roused strong opinions on both sides.  

Those siding with the FBI cite the need for security and protection against terrorists and other criminals, who are now using increasingly sophisticated technology in planning attacks, many in the public are concerned and expressed the willingness to give up some privacy for safety.

Those siding with Apple, including several top technology companies, agree with the company’s assessment.  They fear the government will take it beyond this one case, concerns that seem to be born out by recent news that the Department of Justice is asking for Apple’s help with nine other phones.  Public supporters of Apple expressed the fear that this represents one more way the government might spy on innocent Americans — in the name of preventing an attack. 

What do you think of the case?  Do you tend to side with Apple or the FBI?  How much privacy are you willing to give up to be secure from possible crimes and attacks? Let us know in the comments below.


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