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Apple

Apple should submit to FBI court order to unlock encrypted iPhone

So long as investigators have a court warrant they should be allowed access to encrypted information on a particular device in the same way as if they have obtained a warrant to search a house for evidence of a crime

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 February, 2016, 11:54pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 February, 2016, 11:54pm

Imagine, forbid the thought, a terrorist incident in Hong Kong after which investigating police obtain a court order requiring Apple to help unlock an encrypted iPhone used by one of the perpetrators. Where would you stand if Apple challenged the order because it argued that compliance would “undeniably create a back door” to every iPhone and violate privacy? Americans face that question in real life after a Muslim couple killed 14 people and wounded 22 in an attack last December in San Bernardino, California, before being killed in a shoot-out with police.

According to respected polls, the US is fairly evenly divided one way or the other between people who believe Apple should help FBI investigators and those who think it is right to fight the court order to defend privacy and personal security.

We agree with the former. And we are in good company, now that Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has broken with industry peers by saying he can see the logic of the FBI’s argument.

It is straightforward. So long as investigators have a court warrant they should be allowed access to encrypted information on a particular device in the same way as if they have obtained a warrant to search a house for evidence of a crime.

The other side of the argument is that a search warrant is a one-time authority, whereas a court has ordered Apple to create software that would get around security measures. Apple’s argument would be more convincing if the FBI were seeking access to data on all iPhones – say for “fishing expeditions”. But the court order applies only to a particular phone and the FBI cannot use the software again without separate court order

That said, Apple has a concern that granting access to the killer’s iPhone would set a precedent for governments in other countries .

Where it would assist an investigation of a serious crime, such as murder, Apple should cooperate. Where it has grounds for concern about political persecution it would refuse access at peril to its commercial interests.

Sensibly, Gates says that subject to clear rules, there are benefits to society of a government being able to enforce taxation, stop crime and investigate terror threats. He is right to call for debate on proper safeguards to meet understandable concerns about a government having open access to any information. A decryption authority should relate only to a specific device and the software should remain under the control of a court to safeguard against abuse by law agencies.