By now, you’re familiar with the ongoing feud between the FBI and Apple. Earlier this month, Apple was directed by a US Magistrate in California to provide the FBI with “reasonable technical assistance” in recovering data from the iPhone 5c used by one of the San Bernardino killers. Apple thinks the government is wrong to seek a “backdoor” to its operating system. According to the Pew Research Center, most Americans think the government is right.
In essence, the dispute is about allowing the FBI more attempts at guessing the password to the device than what is allowed currently by the Apple operating system. At 10 incorrect guesses, the device wipes itself. In order to allow more guesses, Apple claims that it would have to create a “fork” of iOS only for that phone. Apple argues that by creating this forked iOS, cybercriminals could use it over and over again on any number of devices, thereby reducing the overall security of iPhone users worldwide. “Specifically, the FBI wants us to make a new version of the iPhone operating system, circumventing several important security features, and install it on an iPhone recovered during the investigation,” Apple wrote in a letter to its customers. “In the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession.”
The Pew Research Center yesterday released a study examining the American public’s attitude to the standoff. It asked 1,002 adults about the battle between the FBI and Apple between February 18 and February 21. Over half of all American say Apple should unlock the phone, with 38 percent arguing Apple should not, and 11 percent not knowing. Broken down by political affiliation, almost identical numbers of Republicans (56 percent) and Democrats (55 percent) say Apple should unlock the phone.
What is perhaps most interesting about these results is the question of whether more people be arguing for Apple to unlock the phone if the type of crime was different? Does the type of crime matter? For example, if the crime was petty theft, would the American public be as forthright about allowing the government into the device? Clearly, the seriousness of the crime in this case is influencing the public’s perception of what should happen. In fact, FBI Director James Comey appealed on Sunday for everyone to remember what happened in San Bernardino. “I hope folks will remember what terrorists did to innocent Americans at a San Bernardino office gathering and why the FBI simply must do all we can under the law to investigate that,” he wrote in an opinion piece for Lawfare.
In the end, the conversation seems to be less about this particular case and more about our long-term approach to encryption technology. Despite the FBI’s attempt to reduce the issue to this single case, Apple and others feel differently. And regardless of Apple’s argument, half of America feels like Apple should relent to the government.
Of course, summarizing the issues and potential outcomes of this case in 500 words is idiotic. What I will offer however is this: Terrorists do not care about these arguments. They don’t care if you believe Apple should open up the phone or not. They don’t care if the FBI loses or wins this battle. What they care about is terrorizing people. They want to frighten and intimidate for political gain. The fact that we are debating this issue, like a thoughtful, lawful people, and not kowtowing to the fear and distrust that terrorism manifests means that we are neither scared nor frightened and that is an encouraging thought.