Your Cell Phone: Apple, the FBI and Privacy Versus Security

If you had to try to “out” smart your smartphone, how well do you think you’d do?  Maybe not so well, considering the recent controversy between Apple and the FBI about how to access the iPhone of a terrorist in the San Bernadino attacks.  The FBI tried getting access to the phone on its own, but couldn’t unlock it.  Then it wanted Apple to come up with what’s known as a “key” to access information contained on the suspect’s phone.  The company refused and a lawsuit ensued.  Finally, the FBI accessed the phone without the company’s help (by hiring a hacker and paying that person big bucks.)

Now, the issue of privacy versus security remains a touchy subject that many say needs to be debated.  “In this case, I thought it was a slam dunk and that Apple should have cooperated,” says Congressman Buddy Carter from Georgia’s 1st congressional district. “Remember, this is the worst terror attack on American soil since 9-11 and it killed 14 people, including a former resident of Jesup which is right here in the 1st congressional district.”

Carter is clear on his opinions in terms of what happens to someone who has been proven to be a terrorist.  The rest he says can be more difficult.  “If it’s someone who has committed a terrorist attack and killed American citizens like these people did, then there’s no question in my mind,” he said.  “But you do get into a grey area when you’ve got a suspect, someone who is only suspected of terrorist activities, that’s why there are a number of bills out there, we’ve got to address this, we’ve got to come to a decision,” he said.

Tanya Lane of Swainsboro knows what she thinks in terms of asking Apple to come up with “key” if the need arises again. “I think if it provides security for us and for our nation, yes then I’m for it. I want to be secure.
I want to feel safe,” she told me.

Frank Katz, who teaches Cyber Security at Armstrong State University believes the issue is more complicated.  He says of course he wants national security but that privacy on one’s telephone is a big deal these days.  “In the Apple case, the FBI was essentially asking a private company to do something it didn’t want to do,” Katz tells me.

Apple phones have a numeric code you can use to lock the phone. First, Katz says Apple stakes its reputation (and realistically sales) on it. “People buy those phones because they expect that level of security for their credit cards, contacts, all that information that’s on their phone,” says Katz.

He also acknowledges that the technology that gives us phones that makes our lives easier also provides criminals ways to hide behind an encrypted fire wall.  In the San Bernadino suspect’s phone, the FBI couldn’t crack the numeric security code and ended up “disabling” the phone, meaning it had exhausted attempts to unlock the phone.  So the FBI asked Apple to write code called a “key” to access the phone. But Katz says the company worried it would set a precedent and maybe backfire.  “They didn’t want to have it in such a way that the code which is intellectual  property could be stolen and now everybody’s phone would be at risk,” he says.

And while the FBI eventually accessed the terrorist’s phone without Apple’s involvement, the debate about creating a “back door” remains on the forefront.

“People want to feel safe, the number one responsibility of the federal government is to  protect our citizens and we’ve got to do that,” says Congressman Carter.  “However, our privacy is extremely important and we don’t want the government looking in our cell phones unless there is beyond the shadow of a doubt reason for them to be doing that.”

Katz says the issue for many Americans will likely be just “who” in the government decides whether a phone should be viewed (most certainly with a warrant) and what can be viewed. “But there are a lot of things on a phone that is not necessarily relevant to an investigation  and how are you going to segregate what’s relevant and what’s not,” he said. “There’s a lot of stuff on a phone so they could start looking at photos which are not relevant to information they’re trying to glean or they could be looking at credit card accounts which are not either.”

No one is saying the government will start looking at all of our phones. Still, Katz is interested in what the government ultimately decides should be policy. And he says so is Apple.  “They didn’t want to have it in such a way that the code which is intellectual  property could be stolen and then everybody’s phone would be at risk,” Katz said.  “So that’s Apple’s argument , i.e. what’s done here, once it gets out into the wild – can be done elsewhere in the world.”

Katz believes ultimately it’s “incumbent upon the legal entity to figure out how to crack a phone, not the manufacturer.” He also says in Apple’s case, “there are more advanced iPhones out there now that the FBI still can’t crack.They would have to have Apple’s cooperation but even Apple might not be able to crack them. I think on the one phone from San Bernadino (an older model) the company didn’t want to do it. But now with the more advanced phones they have, they can’t and if the FBI has a phone in its possession, then it’s going to be up to them to figure out a way to crack it.”

Congressman Carter says it’s a topic that’s not going away. “If it’s someone who has committed a terrorist attack and killed American citizens like these people did then there’s no question in my mind,” he said. “Now you do get into a very grey area when you’ve got a suspect, someone who is suspected of terrorist activities, that’s why there are a number of bills out there, we’ve got to address this, we’ve got to come to a decision on this.”

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