Apple’s Letter: The Continuing Debate Over National Security & Privacy


Article by Jillian Barton


In the modern technological era, one of the biggest concerns that the public has is the security of their personal information. When the FBI demanded Apple to build a “back door” into the iPhone, Apple CEO Tim Cook stated that doing so would put American consumer’s personal information in jeopardy. However, the FBI had a good reason for approaching the tech giant: they needed to crack the passcode on the iPhone that belonged to Syed Farook, one of the suspected shooters in the San Bernardino attack. But Cook rebutted that building such a system would create vulnerabilities for iPhone users. Drawing from the Constitution, Apple has said that assisting the government in this matter would be “in conflict with the First and Fifth Amendments.” Cook even went so far as to say that the FBI’s orders were “the software equivalent of cancer.”


The San Bernardino shootings, which killed 14 people last December, were executed by Farook and Tashfeen Malik, his wife. The encrypted data and the GPS system in Farook’s iPhone may hold important clues about where he and his wife traveled after the shootings and who they might have contacted prior. Investigators believe that the couple may be connected to ISIS extremists but have been unable to find any evidence of overseas contact with the terrorist group.


The FBI stresses that Apple is overstating the security risk. In order to maintain national security, the FBI argues that Apple has a social responsibility to build a system that could break into Farook’s iPhone. As of now, the FBI says the “back-door” would only be used to access Farook’s iPhone, but much of the concern about Apple being mandated to make this software is that the access will expand to others’ devices.


Apple CEO, Timothy Donald (Tim) Cook. Image Credit: Mike Deerkoski

In a survey by the Pew Research Center, 51% of Americans say Apple should help unlock the iPhone for investigators, suggesting that a slim majority of the public supports the FBI. But the survey showed an even more interesting note: Democrats and Republicans had almost the same feelings. 56% of Republicans and 55% of Democrats said that Apple should help unlock the iPhone. Not only did Americans side with the FBI despite varying political views, but they continued to side with the FBI in categories including age range and college education.


Apple is aware of the public’s divided opinion, and in an effort to defend their position, they released a customer letter on their website. The message focuses on the far-reaching implications beyond the case, explaining to customers that once such a system is built, it could be used by the government as a means of breaching America’s iPhones and intercepting anyone’s data (messages, health records, financial data, etc.). Apple, a company that prides itself in safeguarding customer’s personal information through data encryption, stressed that they would do everything in their power to resist building such a system. But Justice Department Lawyers argued that Apple is more concerned with their public brand marketing strategy rather than preserving national security. Their refusal to help the FBI could be fueled by their desire to be seen as a company that protects its consumer’s privacy. But in their customer letter, Apple urges that this is not true, ensuring that, “Apple [is] deeply committed to safeguarding [customer]  data.”

Gold iPhone 6 (Back). Image Credit: Kārlis Dambrāns

What has proceeded since Apple’s letter is a debate about national security and consumer privacy, and it is unclear where exactly a line should be drawn. How much privacy should be given in order to maintain national security? And if Apple loses this case, would it set a precedent that tech giants could be legally forced by government agencies to breach other areas of American privacy in the name of National Security?


Meanwhile, numerous tech giants have backed Apple’s position on denying the FBI’s orders. Amazon, Facebook, Google, Mozilla, Snapchat, Yahoo, and more major online companies have filed joint amici briefs in support of Apple. The tech industry generally agrees with Apple, claiming that unlocking the iPhone would undermine companies’ efforts to protect consumer security. But many of the companies’ responses came with caution, fearing that there could be far-reaching implications should Apple lose the case, such as compromising the security of their products for law enforcement in the future.


On the other side of the debate is Bill Gates, one of the only big technological entrepreneurs to disagree with the statements made by Apple. Instead of seeing it as a black and white issue, he sees the conflict as a gray area. He explains that the Congress and the courts must help find a proper balance between security and privacy. Suggesting that Apple is mislabeling their fight with the FBI, Gates made an analogy: “It is no different than…should anybody ever have been able to tell the phone company to get information… There’s no difference between information.” Gates believes that Apple is simply delaying the decision–Apple is currently taking a clear stance on this issue, but in the end, they must ultimately comply with the law.

Gold iPhone 6 (Front).  Image Credit: Kārlis Dambrāns

After Apple challenged a Judge’s order on February 16 to provide the FBI with a way to extend beyond a security feature of the iPhone, a court hearing was set for March 21. However, on March 20, one day prior to the hearing, the Department of Justice released a statement, saying they had canceled the hearing, claiming that an “outside party demonstrated a possible method for unlocking Farook’s iPhone.” Should this effort work, Apple’s assistance would be unnecessary. Until this alternative method is examined further, Apple’s case with the FBI is on hold. But this doesn’t mean that the debate between national security and consumer’s privacy is over. It is likely that this debate will continue to play out in courts across America and in Congress. In an era of terror, national security is of the utmost importance to the public; but how much are they willing to give up in order to have it?


Feature Image Credit: Information Security Newspaper

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