Risks in Forcing Apple to Comply With Order to Unlock Phone Linked to San Bernardino Attack

By: Tim Sparapani

A federal judge’s order to help the Justice Department unlock a phone used by a suspect in the San Bernardino, Calif., shootings has put unprecedented pressure on Apple. In a letter to customers detailing the company’s opposition, Apple CEO Tim Cook noted that there are “implications far beyond the legal case at hand.” Yes, the owner of the phone–Syed Rizwan Farook‘s former employer–has given permission to search the device. But those who view the case as a potential means to combat the threat of terrorism are missing its threat to liberty, its potentially dangerous precedent, and the fallout to technological security. Consider:

Apple has said it complied with government search warrants and subpoenas. The Justice Department’s motion for Apple to disable particular security features on the phone presses the company to reformulate its operating software so that U.S. investigators can learn whether Mr. Farook used the iPhone to communicate with others about the November shootings. Forcing companies to create technologies to break their operating systems or override security features creates an after-the-incident forensic tool to figure out what may have happened. This does not actually deter or prevent terrorism. People determined to carry out attacks will continue to do so. They will simply use the encrypted products and devices sold by companies based outside the U.S. or other countries whose governments pry open their devices. At the same time, security protections for all consumers of those products will be weakened.

Such a move would set a dangerous international precedent. If the U.S. government forces Apple to undermine its technology there will be no means for companies to take a principled stand when rogue regimes, dictatorships, oligarchs, and other bad actors around the world make a similar request. One nation’s terrorist is another’s journalist. Or reformer, or freedom fighter, or rights advocate. In the wrong hands, the implications could extend to instances regarding human life, free speech, privacy, and other fundamental human rights around the globe.

In the immediate and long term, there is also a malware risk. Forcing Apple to reformulate its operating system is all but asking for the introduction of a bug, flaw, or defect–those forced upon companies by governments and those introduced through the vulnerabilities created by criminal hackers, identity thieves, and the government-sponsored spies of foreign nations.

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