Originally written for the Syracuse University College of Engineering blog.
In the wake of the tragic shooting in San Bernardino, many questions remain and people want answers. It seemed like a breakthrough in the investigation was imminent when the FBI got their hands on one of the shooters’ iPhone, only to be thwarted by the discovery that the device was encrypted and password protected. Ten wrong guesses and the device will wipe itself clean including all the precious data within.
In light of the situation, a judge officially ordered Apple to aid the FBI in unlocking the iPhone. However, Apple has announced that they refuse to comply. Not only that, but Google has also announced that they support Apple’s decision to challenge the judge’s ruling. Why are two major tech companies reluctant to aid in an investigation? The problem has nothing to do with the technology, but rather the societal consequences such aid would bring.
In order for Apple to unlock the shooter’s device, they would have to circumvent the security mechanisms of their own device. This same technique could then be applied to any iPhone in the world. If Apple created such a capability and put it to use in this case, who’s to say they would never use it again? Allowing for such a power to exist would create a precedent which would undermine their customer’s trust in all of Apple’s products. And this distrust could radiate outwards to other tech companies like Google and Microsoft who could likewise do the same.
But the consequences wouldn’t only be to Apple’s profit margin. Encryption levels the playing field between the mighty and the weak. The same encryption that is thwarting the FBI’s investigation is simultaneously allowing citizens who live under oppressive regimes to circumvent country-wide censorship while avoiding unjust prosecution. Betray these users’ trust with this new precedent, take away their means of broadcasting their voice, and the whole world becomes a darker place.
The root of this problem is not one we are unfamiliar with. Time and time again we are presented with the question of the benefits of taking something away from everyone in order to prevent a few from abusing it. The answer is dependent on the details, and in this case I side with Apple in saying that they should not comply with this order. Compliance would not only hurt American citizens and American companies, it would hurt every citizen of every country. We cannot allow tragedy to drive us towards oppression. We must maintain transparency for the strong and encryption for the weak.