The ongoing spat between Apple and the FBI over the iPhone owned by one of the San Bernardino terrorists is bound to have huge implications on Apple’s brand integrity, consumer privacy, data encryption and law enforcement efforts. According to Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, consumer privacy trumps the federal government’s attempts to have Apple develop software that can help the FBI crack the passcode protecting the terrorist’s iPhone. Nevertheless, interested parties have advanced reasons why Apple should or should not comply with the FBI’s request.
The Elephant in the Room
It is virtually impossible to dissect this saga objectively without addressing the elephant in the room, Edward Snowden’s government spying revelations. In 2013, Edward Snowden, a National Security Agency (NSA) contractor, revealed that the US government was running mass surveillance programs with exotic names such as Prism. These surveillance programs were collecting the phone metadata of tens of millions of American citizens. Moreover, one of American’s allies, the UK, was accused of using the Prism program to gather information on millions of web users online. At the same time, Silicon Valley tech companies were accused of enabling or allowing the US government’s spy agencies to access consumer data illegally.
These accusations did not bode well with the commercial interests of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs as well as their shareholders because they could damage their brand integrity and credibility in the eyes of consumers irreparably. As a result, almost all major tech companies went on a charm offensive denying that they were handing over consumer data to the government and touting their intention to uphold consumer privacy. In addition, they rolled out more robust data encryption technologies to ensure that cybercriminals or government spooks would find it difficult to intercept and decode encrypted data.
The Current Brouhaha
In light of the events described above, Apple finds itself in a tight spot because, in order to maintain brand integrity, it does not want to create the impression that it is ready to accede to every government demand for consumer data irrespective of whether the request is legal or illegal. On the other hand, the Cupertino based tech company also doesn’t want to appear as a supporter of terrorism. As such, Tim Cook has adopted the moral high ground and denounced the FBI’s request by stating that acceding to this request would put the personal data of millions of Apple’s clients at risk.
On its part, the federal government reckons it has the right to ask Apple to aid its investigation of an act of terrorism that occurred on American soil. After the Snowden leaks, President Obama defended the government’s spying activities by saying that, “You can’t have 100% security, and also then have 100% privacy and zero inconvenience.” Furthermore, the President reckoned that the US government had struck the right “balance” when undertaking surveillance activities.
The FBI’s Order
It is worth noting that the order that the FBI presented to Apple has been misinterpreted in some media circles, thereby adding more confusion to the current legal drama. To be precise, the order by US judge Sheri Pym does not expressly order Apple to hack the encryption on the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone. The order simply states that Apple should offer “reasonable technical assistance” to law enforcement authorities in their quest to access the data in the iPhone 5c that was used by Syed Farook.
In essence, the court ruling requires Apple to provide a way of bypassing or breaching the passcode security feature that has prevented investigators from accessing the contents of Farook’s iPhone. This presents both parties with a unique challenge. On the one hand, investigators do not know the passcode to Farook’s phone meaning they risk permanently erasing the data stored in the phone if they enter the wrong passcode several times. On the other hand, Apple does not have or know the passcode because it had already instituted software changes that lock it out of the passcode security chain. Apple rolled out these changes prior to this incident specifically to avoid being served with judicial orders to hand over security codes to law enforcers. This has spawned the narrative that media outlets are airing to the effect that the FBI is asking Apple to develop software that enables investigators to break or bypass the iPhone’s security features.
Apple’s Dilemma in Protecting Brand Integrity
Faced with the scenario above, Apple is rightly worried about the implications of legal rulings, such as the one that the FBI has obtained. To be specific, Tim Cook reckons that giving in to one request will embolden government agencies to make similar demands in the future. This is in addition to foreign governments asking Apple to hand over data tied to imagined or real terrorists. Brand integrity may be jeopardized if a pristine company like Apple does not concede to the government; yet brand integrity may be even more so jeopardized if it does concede.
Security Advocates Lampoon Apple
Although Apple has the right to challenge the FBI’s order, security advocates reckon that Tim Cook and company are placing commercial interests above the security of American citizens. To start with, they point out that Syed Farook and his partner orchestrated a horrendous and dastardly terror attack that left 14 innocent Americans dead. Moreover, they state that the FBI order is related to a single phone, not the millions of iPhones sold to consumers worldwide. The Manhattan district attorney’s office has also joined the anti-Apple cavalry by stating that investigators have been unable to execute more than 150 search warrants for Apple devices running iOS 8 operating system due to technological hurdles. These warrants are tied to robbery, assault, sexual abuse of children, homicide, and attempted murder cases.
Tech Community Rallies Around Apple
After Apple released media statements saying it would challenge the FBI’s iPhone hacking request, the tech community was quick to rally around one of its own. Some of the key players in the tech and Internet marketing space that have come out in support of Apple for protecting brand integrity include- Facebook and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Google Chief executive Sundar Pichai, WhatsApp founder Jan Koum, billionaire investor Mark Cuban and Twitter boss Jack Dorsey.
The current legal drama pitting the FBI against Silicon Valley stalwart Apple will define the way law enforcement agencies undertake investigations that require accessing data stored in increasingly more secure mobile devices. This notwithstanding, a survey done by the Pew Research Center shows that the FBI has the support of 51% of Americans while Apple and company have the support of 38% of Americans. Even more, the rulings that pan out in the case could possibly set the standard as to companies’ rights to protect brand integrity.