It's amazing that one little iPhone 5C has become the crux of a personal data privacy vs. national security firestorm with implications that could affect all of us—in fact, the world at large—for years and decades to come.
In fact, it wouldn't be a surprise to see on TV someday Don Wildman, host of the History Channel's "Mysteries at the Museum," at the Computer History Museum doing a segment about the phone that once belonged to the late Syed Farook of Redlands, Calif. Farook and Tashfeen Malik shot and killed 14 people and wounded 21 others in San Bernardino, Calif., on Dec. 2, 2015, before they were caught and killed by law enforcement personnel.
Because of its potential value to the Federal Bureau of Investigation in finding out more about terrorist networks, Farook's iPhone stands to become a historical artifact for the digital age, worthy of significance alongside the first portable calculator, the Altair computer and even the Pong video game.
Symbol of Data Privacy vs. National Security
That iPhone also has become a symbol of data privacy vs. national security, two sides that are strictly divergent in their interests and purposes. When the FBI obtained a lower court order to see the contents on the iPhone, and when Apple refused to create a backdoor to harvest the data, citing data privacy policies and overall trust that its customers have invested in the company for years to safeguard their personal data, we've moved inescapably into a make-or-break moment involving no less than national security versus personal liberty.
The question now, of course, is this: Should Apple download this personal information—even though the owner is deceased—and hand it over to the authorities? The company has until Feb. 26 to comply with the court order to open the iPhone, take off the data and turn it over to the FBI. Apple CEO Tim Cook will have none of this, and the company is preparing a legal defense.
The next questions: What legal and moral precedents does this set, no matter what eventually is settled in the case? How do we keep our private information private, and when the common good is impacted, when should private information need to be released to the authorities?
Since this conflict came to light Feb. 16, when Cook published an open letter to customers about the court order, new angles to this story have cropped up having to do with security on the device. For example, a county official (yet unnamed on Feb. 22) reset the access password remotely in an effort to open the phone. This act now disallows a backup of the information on the phone and in the iCloud, so the original data on the phone is now in a tenuous state.
Nonetheless, this all boils down to one central issue: Does the government have the right to circumvent encryption security to obtain personal information stored on a device or in a cloud, in order to perform research in a criminal case—or for any other reason?
Legal Decision Will Become Landmark
Precedents set here will affect criminal investigations and court decisions for years to come.
eWEEK asked these questions to a group of respected IT security and data protection professionals:
1) Do you stand behind Apple's/Google's position on this, or the FBI's? Why?
2) What solution to this data privacy problem would you put forth if you were a mediator in this dispute?
3) Is it possible to isolate that iPhone and just have Apple get the data from it and send it to the FBI so that no backdoors are involved?
Their answers are on the following four pages.
Photo courtesy of YouTube