Every newspaper this week has covered the details of a disagreement that is set to go down in history. After a court ordered Apple to create what its CEO, Tim Cook, describes as a technological “backdoor” which will allow access to the private and (ordinarily) encrypted data of smartphone users, the company refused to do so voluntarily. He detailed his reasons in an open letter to customers, which can be read here: http://www.apple.com/customer-letter/
Mr Cook explains the wider concerns he has, by stating that “The government could extend this breach of privacy and demand that Apple build surveillance software to intercept your messages, access your health records or financial data, track your location, or even access your phone’s microphone or camera without your knowledge.”
Initially, some individuals from Silicon Valley backed the multinational, or at least expressed their concern over what the court order could mean, like Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai did on Twitter, but the majority of technical giants stayed silent and refused to issue an official company stance.
But now, companies including Facebook and Microsoft have quietly come forward in support of Apple.
Reform Government Surveillance (RGS) is a coalition of ten of the biggest tech companies, and it aims for reform in the laws and practices regulating government surveillance in the US. RGS is made up of Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Evernote, AOL, LinkedIn, Yahoo!, Twitter and Dropbox. Though they did not make ground-breaking individual statements, they did, under the umbrella of RGS, come forward and make a statement condemning the request made by the US government. On Wednesday 17th February, it declared:
“Reform Government Surveillance companies believe it is extremely important to deter terrorists and criminals and to help law enforcement by processing legal orders for information in order to keep us all safe. But technology companies should not be required to build in backdoors to the technologies that keep their users’ information secure. RGS companies remain committed to providing law enforcement with the help it needs while protecting the security of their customers and their customers’ information.”
While the world is waiting for top tech executives like Zuckerburg (Facebook) and Mayer (Yahoo!) to join the debate, WhatsApp founder Jan Koum did air his opinion via Facebook: “I have always admired Tim Cook for his stance on privacy and Apple’s efforts to protect user data and couldn’t agree more with everything said in their Customer Letter today. We must not allow this dangerous precedent to be set. Today our freedom and our liberty is at stake.”
This debate is particularly relevant to British citizens since arguments along similar lines have been raging here in the UK for a long time. The debate over the importance of national security versus the need for privacy is one that we are all too familiar with. In support of the collection of mass communications, Andrew Parker – the director general of the UK security service – recently said, “We all live our lives with our smartphones in our pockets. The terrorists do the same and they are using secure apps and internet communication to try to broadcast their message and to incite and direct terrorism.” Key figures of the government, including Prime Minister David Cameron and Home Secretary Theresa May regularly express their support of this, with the former agreeing that it is crucial that intelligence agencies are able to “get to the bottom” of online communications.
Any rational person can understand the need for a government to protect its citizens from the dangers of terrorism. Monitoring communications seems to many like a sensible and proactive precaution. But it is a complicated issue; one that asks citizens to revoke some of their privacy, supposedly, in return for their safety.
Essentially, this is a very divisive issue that touches on a lot of sensitivities. At one point, Cook mentions that in the “wrong hands”, the ‘key’ that unlocks Apple’s defence could cause a lot of destruction, as well as potential chaos for small businesses, individuals and families if things such as sensitive company information, bank accounts and passwords are compromised.
The US Justice Department suggested that Apple is more concerned ”for its business model and public brand marketing strategy” than it is about terrorism. To be fair, Apple has been extremely cooperative and has worked alongside the FBI from the very beginning of this investigation; moreover, Apple has repeatedly stressed its commitment to the fight against terrorism. What the company opposes is the method it is being asked to use.
More recently, in response to Apple’s hesitation, the McAfee founder (John McAfee) has offered to hack into the iPhone in question. At the time of writing this article the FBI had yet to respond.