OPINION

Apple stands up to surveillance

Apple CEO Tim Cook’s revelation this week that the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation wants his company to take the “unprecedented step” of hacking into the iPhone 5 device used by terrorists in the San Bernardino, California attack in December 2015, highlights the complexity that the world today faces in simultaneously pursuing two well-meaning goals: digital security and national security. The problem is, it seems that one cannot be pursued without jeopardising the other. Mr. Cook, who opposes the order, is clearly privileging the former, while the FBI is interested in the latter. The CEO was quick to explain that as a matter of policy Apple regularly complied with valid subpoenas and search warrants, including in the San Bernardino case, in which he said Apple had made its engineers available to advise the FBI. However, in opposing the FBI’s order, his remarks represent the sharpest public protest by any of the Silicon Valley tech giants against the post-Snowden U.S. surveillance state. In this, he has also got support from tech heavyweights such as Google and Microsoft. Their defiance is understandable. For the tech giants, compliance with such orders can easily put at risk the value proposition of data protection they pitch to their users, thereby putting their businesses in peril. As more and more of our lives get played out in the digital world, more advanced security features will inevitably become central to their offerings in the future. Mr. Cook knows this well — his note was addressed to the customers.

According to Mr. Cook, the FBI has asked Apple to produce a new version of the iPhone operating system (OS) that would circumvent critical security features such as the automatic memory wipe that happens when the wrong login code is entered 10 times. The authorities, Mr. Cook said, intend to have this new operating system installed on the government-owned iPhone recovered during the investigation of the San Bernardino attack, yet there may be no guarantee that the government would limit the use of this special OS to this device alone. Mr. Cook’s discomfiture with complying with the FBI’s request has to do with — and rightly so — the lurking risk that the iPhone hack programme that Apple considers “too dangerous to create” would inevitably produce backdoor access to all iPhones. After all, the debate stirred up by Edward Snowden resulted in an effective end to the bulk collection of the phone records of millions of Americans. Such progress would be undone if new surveillance weapons were built and entrusted to the NSA. Yielding to this one ask, which the FBI proposes to enforce via the 227-year-old All Writs Act, could bring in a flood of such requests from around the globe, including from regimes where the legal framework to constrain cyber-snooping operations may be far from adequate with regard to protecting the civil liberties of citizens. The argument that this is for a one-off case is thus weak. As the technologists know, there may be little that is exclusive or one-time about special access.