At the heart of FBI’s request to unlock Apple iPhone lies a battle over access to private information

H.T. Goranson says the FBI’s public demand for Apple to unlock a phone linked to an extremist attack signals a new attempt at control

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 February, 2016, 1:41pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 February, 2016, 1:54pm

Apple’s refusal to unlock the iPhone linked to the extremist attack in San Bernardino, California, in December has triggered a public battle with the US Justice Department and the FBI – a dispute with far-reaching implications for data privacy worldwide. But the case is not as straightforward as it seems.

As someone with a long presence in the US intelligence community, I believe the FBI has already gained access to Syed Rizwan Farook’s iPhone. It is an older Apple model using technology that, in other contexts, has already been compromised.

As the debate unfolds, we need to consider whether it makes sense for everyone – law enforcement, hackers and terrorists – to be able to possess or access information

Why would the US government stoop to a public debate on this issue? The FBI has already said this is not about just one phone. But few understand that this is not a simple matter of opposing interests: public safety versus an individual’s right to privacy.

For a better understanding of the FBI’s demand, we need to look at Apple’s latest line of phones, which differ from Farook’s in a fundamental respect: they contain a new chip designed using a technique developed by the US National Security Agency (NSA).

Each of the chips has a unique signature for encryption, which is coupled with its user’s fingerprint. Without that signature, it is impossible to decrypt an Apple phone without physical access to the internals of its chip – which is itself impenetrable.

READ MORE: Why is Apple fighting the FBI’s demand to unlock terrorist gunman’s iPhone?

In the past, immediate access to telephony devices was irrelevant to the FBI, because the authorities had unfettered access to communications as they travelled to and from a phone. But, with its new security improvements, Apple is now closing that door. The company is not simply denying new access; it will soon take away existing access.

This bothers the FBI. Interestingly, the NSA has taken a different stance. Backdoors have been acknowledged as dangerous by NSA director Admiral Mike Rogers. When access to private communications is possible, anyone can use it for any purpose.

READ MORE: Big data, big traps: How massive stores of personal information can be misused

This complicates the FBI’s argument about public safety.

The FBI’s request signals a new attempt at control. Its intent, it seems, is to prompt lawmakers to respond to public outrage. As the debate unfolds, we need to consider whether it makes sense for everyone – law enforcement, hackers and terrorists – to be able to possess or access information.

The Apple case will affect the balance of informational power, and the scales are currently weighted against the citizen. Resolving the case requires a considered response from US politicians.

H.T. Goranson was senior scientist with the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency. Copyright: Project Syndicate