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Apple-FBI dispute a classic test of government's reach

Posted March 19
Updated March 20

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— Apple has made headlines recently, not because of a new iPhone but something much more serious.

"The United States government has demanded that Apple take an unprecedented step which threatens the security of our customers," Apple CEO Tim Cook said in a letter to customers Feb. 16. “We oppose this order, which has implications far beyond the legal case at hand.”

In February, a federal magistrate judge ordered Apple to bypass security functions of one phone, used by Syed Rizwan Farook. Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, killed 14 people in early December in San Bernardino, Calif. It was the deadliest shooting in the United States since 28 students and teachers were killed in Newtown, Conn.

The FBI wants to see who Farook was messaging on his phone and which websites he was visiting before the attack, all in the hopes of uncovering more information on his motive. Unfortunately for the FBI, the phone is locked. The simple four-digit security code on most phones is keeping the FBI from reaching the information they want.

The code has 10,000 possible combinations. With each incorrect entry, the iPhone’s software, iOS, introduces a delay to the system, and too many incorrect entries will lock the phone for varying amounts of time and eventually delete personal data from the phone in question.

With all this in mind, the FBI is asking Apple for help. The Bureau would like Apple to engineer software to be installed on Farook’s phone that would circumvent the security measures put in place.

Apple respectfully declined to cooperate.

"While we believe the FBI’s intentions are good,” Cook says, “it would be wrong for the government to force us to build a back door into our products. And ultimately, we fear that this demand would undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect.”

It is the latest salvo in the classic debate: how much government is too much government?

Those in support of Apple worry about the far-reaching control of the government if the precedent were to be established now. Those in support of the FBI worry for the security and safety of the country.

Even President Barack Obama has chimed in on the discussion.

“I anguish a lot over the decisions we make in terms of how we keep this country safe,” the president says, “and I am not interested in overdrawing the values that have made us an exceptional and great nation simply for expediency. But the dangers are real. Maintaining law and order in a civilized society is important. Protecting our kids is important.”

Michael Reiter, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, researches communications security. He says the concern over privacy in this particular case may be a little out of hand.

“I think there’s been a misunderstanding propagated in the media that what the FBI is asking for is for there to be a back door on all Apple phones, and that is not true.”

Reiter says that the focus is on Farook’s phone only, although he does understand the concern for privacy. Some worry the software could be developed generally and leaked. Others could then use it for their own personal gain. Reiter says it’s a concern that shouldn’t be overlooked.

“Certainly software has been leaked before, and it will be leaked again in the future, but there are things that have been kept secret before and will be kept secret in the future,” Reiter said.

The real problem at hand is the precedent the case could set. If the FBI can receive a warrant to have software built to circumvent the security on an iPhone, other law enforcement agencies would have a case to get a warrant for similar situations.

Even local law enforcement agencies, like the Cary Police Department are watching this case carefully. Cary Capt. Randall Rhyne says the balance of privacy and law enforcement is a very difficult task, but one that needs to be addressed.

“I understand people’s needs for privacy, and I don’t have a problem with that. I think it’s a good thing, but at the same time, some people are using that for evil,” he said.

On March 22, lawyers for both Apple and the government will appear in a district court in California. Look for the ruling to be appealed, possibly all the way to the Supreme Court.


Louis Fernandez, a Broadcast and Electronic Journalism major, is involved in producing, reporting and anchoring for Carolina Connection, Carolina Week and Spots Xtra at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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