In what has been the most high-profile smartphone security debate of the year, Apple denied a federal district court order that it assist the FBI in bypassing the security functions on an iPhone 5C used by San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizan Farook. Apple publicly went against the wishes of the government in a move that sets a precedent for the responsibility of companies regarding security and privacy.
The ongoing dialogue between Apple and the FBI was brought to a halt this month as the tech giants were informed that the government wanted to vacate the hearing. The courts have reportedly found an as-yet-unknown third party capable and willing to help extract the required information from the iPhone. The discussion surrounding Apple’s responsibility in providing sensitive information to the government had been raging for months, before the FBI told a US judge that they had found a body that ‘demonstrated an alternate method’ of unlocking the phone and subsequently removed Apple from the process.
If they Department of Justice (DoJ) is forced to drop the case - which they likely will be - Apple with have no way of requesting information regarding the particular vulnerability in the iPhone’s security that the unnamed third party are set to exploit. The story has brought to the fore difficult questions regarding a government’s ability to order a company to create software to bypass their own inbuilt security systems, and it will continue to do so. Issues of privacy of information are particularly pertinent in technology of late. The Internet of Things, for example, will see households laden with connected devices, and the ability for governments to gain access to the information collected by an individual’s devices would set a dangerous precedent heading forward. Apple CEO Tim Cook warned of the ‘catastrophic security implications’ of creating a hack for one of the world’s most popular devices.
Apple’s rejection of the order rests largely on precedent. It is extremely unlikely such an insight would be demanded only once; people within law enforcement have argued that the ‘backdoor’ would be destroyed following extraction but Apple, quite rightly, are sceptical about the veracity of that claim. And Apple’s rejection has not only been public but emphatic, and thusly impressive. ‘This is an issue that impacts all of us, and we will not shrink from this responsibility,’ Cook said as he revealed new products at a Spring event this month. Apple will themselves be aware of the implications of accepting the FBI’s demands, and the rejection should not be taken on an idealistic level but a business one; consumers are less inclined to buy products they deem insecure, and Apple have positioned themselves as protectors of information.
Apple products have the very favourable reputation of having superior security; Mac is notorious for being less susceptible to viruses and malware compared to Windows operating systems. The third party hack threatens to derail the notion that Apple create unbreakable products, but CNBC are reporting that the move will not likely negatively affect Apple’s image. It has largely garnered support for its rejection of governmental orders; many users of the phone were naturally uncomfortable with such a hack becoming available to the DoJ. ‘It won't impact iPhone sales. This particular phone is an iPhone 5c running iOS 8, an old version of the operation system on a particular model. Even if they can break into that, it may not translate into other iPhones or newer operating systems, like the 9.1 released on Monday,’ said Bob O'Donnell, founder and chief analyst at Technalysis Research.
Even in a world in which phones can be relatively easily hacked, it seems unlikely that Apple’s reputation will be damaged by the saga enough for consumers to consider iOS devices less secure than their Android or Windows counterparts. And regardless, the FBI still have to prove that their alternate means of unlocking the iPhone are successful. The story is far from over, but at this point it is doubtful that Tim Cook will be sweating too much.