Who can access your cell phone? Right now, it’s just you — even the manufacturer cannot unlock it. But that’s subject to change, especially as many people in the federal government are pushing for access to devices.
Despite requests from U.S. Attorney General William Barr, Apple has refused to unlock a mass shooter’s iPhone, heating up the debate between digital privacy activists and law enforcement.
On Dec. 6, Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, a Saudi Arabian Air Force recruit training in the U.S., opened fire at a naval base in Pensacola, Florida, killing three and wounding eight, before being killed by local police at the scene.
Two days later, the FBI announced that it was treating the case as a presumed terrorist attack, and opened an investigation. According to Politico News, in an effort to determine the shooter’s motive and find out if he was working alone, investigators obtained a warrant to examine data on the shooter’s phone, and asked Apple to unlock it. Apple refused.
Paly history teacher Jack Bungarden said that this case is part of a larger issue.
“Since the founding of the nation, we have had a conflict between liberty and security,” Bungarden said. “The more you have of one, the less you have of the other.”
Barr argues that in this case, security is more important. In a press conference on Jan. 16, he pressured Apple to comply with the warrant.
“This situation perfectly illustrates why it is critical that the public be able to get access to digital evidence once it has obtained a court order based on probable cause,” Barr said. “We call on Apple and other technology companies to help us find a solution so that we can better protect the lives of American people and prevent future attacks.”
Policy set by former President Bill Clinton’s Administration in 1999 allows phone companies to create uncrackable encryption: security without backdoors, accessible only by the user. In 2014, Apple released the iPhone 6 and began utilizing this law, creating encryption that even Apple cannot break. Despite this, Barr said he believes that Apple can create software that sidesteps the limits on password attempts, thereby enabling the FBI to guess Alshamrani’s password.
Several Paly students sympathize with the attorney general, citing public safety.
“While there is a privacy concern, it is more important for the government to be able to catch people and stop shootings from occurring,” sophomore Neil Rathi said.
However, in accordance with its policy of total privacy for its customers, Apple refused the request. In a memo to company employees, Apple CEO Tim Cook defended this stance, emphasizing the importance of privacy and security.
“This case is about much more than a single phone or a single investigation,” Cook said in the memo. “At stake is the data security of hundreds of millions of law-abiding people, and setting a dangerous precedent that threatens everyone’s civil liberties.”
Proponents of Apple’s refusal to open phones argue that backdoors made for authorities can be exploited by other groups. One such proponent is Riana Pfefferkorn, Stanford Law School associate director of surveillance and cybersecurity.
“A backdoor into a phone is just a security vulnerability,” Pfefferkorn said. “If law enforcement in the U.S. can use it, than hackers and nation-states like China will be able to access it, and they will be able to collect any information they want.”
Sophomore Stefan Batory similarly expressed concern over the possibility of a backdoor into his phone.
“I would feel very insecure if Apple had a backdoor into my phone,” Batory said.
Access to digital information can help law enforcement agencies stop terrorist attacks or other internet-based crimes like hacking or distribution of child pornography, said then-FBI Director James Comey in a 2014 press conference. But, according to Pfefferkorn, it comes at a cost to personal privacy.
The relative importance of national security and personal data security has been under debate since the beginning of the Internet. But as the world’s largest tech company clashes with the federal government, the future of data encryption and online privacy may be determined in the coming weeks.