Q&A: The key questions in the Apple vs FBI security row answered
Apple and other big names in the technology community find themselves at loggerheads with US authorities over data privacy after a magistrate ordered Apple to produce software that would “unlock” an iPhone in a criminal investigation.
The technology giant has hit back at the demands and said it will fight them to protect user privacy.
What are the courts demanding?
In the aftermath of the San Bernardino mass shootings in California, US authorities recovered the iPhone of one of the shooters – Syed Farook, who died in a gun battle with police along with his wife after they had shot and killed 14 people. Mr Farook’s iPhone is locked however, and with investigators firmly believing access to its contents could help with their investigation into the extremist-linked attack, they asked a court to demand Apple help unlock the phone.
What has Apple been asked to do?
While the US authorities have not asked Apple to fully hack the iPhone, the order does request the manufacturer disable the software that limits the number of attempts given to guess the passcode that unlocks the phone. The FBI wants to disable the auto-erase function for too many failed guesses of the four-digit code, and be able to use a computer to electronically break the code, rather than input the 10,000 possible solutions manually in order to get into it.
Why is Apple refusing?
In an open letter, Apple chief Tim Cook said that the company did not want to create a so-called “back-door” in their encrypted software, which once created could not be undone. Mr Cook added that there was no guarantee the back-door would only be used once by authorities, and that just its existence would make iPhone security weaker, and this was not fair on customers.
Back-doors are also highly lucrative for hackers – these are the things they spend their lives looking for, and exploiting as part of their attacks on businesses. So public knowledge of one existing for the iPhone would likely cause a surge in attention Apple’s iOS software receives, with potential buyers of this software ranging from cyber criminals to governments looking to spy on and obtain data that until now they would not be able to get to.
Is the ‘back-door’ even possible?
Many security experts argue that such technology could be created, with some even arguing that given the knowledge Apple has, it could create software that would work only on Mr Farook’s iPhone.
Apple itself did not deny the software was possible in the open letter, instead focussing on why it doesn’t believe it should be done.
The FBI has also suggested that it was willing to control the process of accessing the phone, but let Apple do it itself and not find out how it is done, reducing the risk to Apple’s encryption software.
Has anyone else spoken out?
Apple has received some backing from other big names in the technology community, including Twitter and Facebook. Twitter chief Jack Dorsey tweeted his support to Mr Cook, while Facebook said that while it condemns terrorism it will “fight” any attempts to weaken digital security. WhatsApp founder Jan Koum, Google CEO Sundar Pichai and NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden have also voiced their support for Apple.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has backed the FBI, saying he “100% agreed with the courts”, and in the UK, the family of murdered soldier Lee Rigby told the BBC that Apple was “protecting a murderer’s privacy at the cost of public safety”.
What happens next?
Apple has until next Tuesday to officially respond to the court ruling, though there are reports this could be extended to Friday, with the answer expected to be a resounding “no”. It is likely to then move up through the US appeals system, potentially all the way to the Supreme Court, who would offer a final verdict – though this could take several years.
Regardless of the result, the relationship between technology companies and government is likely to change forever, and a ruling for either side will set a new precedent when it comes to data privacy.