U.S. wants to peek inside iPhone but Apple holding up the shield of privacy
SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — Apple, the maker of trend-setting gadgets like the iPhone and iPad, has changed the way people use technology in their daily lives. Along the way it has cast itself as a defender of user privacy. Now, the giant tech company is headed for a showdown with the federal government over its latest attempt to keep user data private.
An Apple product user's data is any bit of information about them that can be picked up from their text messages, phone calls or photos. Such data is of interest both to advertisers and, potentially, the government. The government sees access to data as a valuable tool in its attempts to spot and track criminals and potential terrorists.
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, encryption is a method of scrambling data so it is unreadable or, in the case of a photo, unrecognizable. Encrypted data can only be decrypted with a secret key or passcode.
Apple's encryption is locking up people's photos, text messages and other data so securely that even Apple cannot get at it. Law-enforcement officials have complained that terrorists and criminals may use that encryption as a shield.
Federal Order Seeks Software To Enable Hacking
Then on Wednesday, Apple found itself challenged by the government over an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino, California, mass shooters. A federal judge ordered Apple to produce software that would help federal investigators hack into that phone.
The software would not break the encryption directly. Instead, it would disable other security measures that prevent attempts to guess the phone's passcode.
Apple has five days to challenge the order.
Experts say the legal clash could change the relationship between tech companies and government authorities.
"This is really a deep question about the power of government to redesign products that we use," said law professor Ryan Calo.
Little Public Support From Other Tech Companies
Many leading tech companies — Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo — were noticeably silent about the dispute on Wednesday. However, some trade groups did issue 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. He added that the case could set a troubling example.
In the past, tech companies have spoken against government attempts to secretly monitor vast numbers of private communications. Such broad monitoring is known as surveillance. To many opponents it is essentially spying on the American people.
Recently, however, the Obama administration has sought to enlist the tech industry's help in fighting terrorism. Several companies have heeded the administration's request to take down terrorist postings on social media.
Civil liberties groups warned that the current conflict could extend beyond Apple.
"This is asking a company to build a digital defect, a design flaw, into their products," privacy advocate Nuala O'Connor said. O'Connor works for the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington, D.C.-based group that has criticized government surveillance. In a statement, the center warned that other companies could face similar orders in the future.
Opening The Door For Other Countries' Requests
Others said a government victory could encourage governments 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," lawyer Lee Tien said. Tien is a staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group in San Francisco.
Apple's Cook said the government's demand would create what amounts to a "back door" in Apple's encryption software. If the government can "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 expressed outrage over the shootings.
Cook may have no choice but to mount a legal challenge. After all, his company has made a very public commitment to protecting customer data.
Apple "can't be seen now as doing something that would make their products less safe," said business professor Wendy Patrick, who teaches at San Diego State University in California. "I think everyone saw this issue coming down the pike," she added. "Apple always knew it was going to push back when the moment came."
How Will Consumers React?
However, Apple's refusal to cooperate may anger consumers who put a higher value on national security than privacy. A recent survey found that 82 percent of U.S. adults think government surveillance of suspected terrorists is acceptable. Apple's position was already drawing fire Wednesday. Both Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and commentators on Fox News harshly criticized the company.
However, only 40 percent of those recently surveyed said it is acceptable for the government to monitor U.S. citizens. The survey also found nearly three-fourths of U.S. adults consider it "very important" to have control over who can access personal information about them.