For the past two days the viral post circulating the web wasn’t some unbelievable story or a funny YouTube video, but a “letter to our customers” from Apple.
In the debate over privacy vs. security, Apple strongly took the side of privacy. To give some background to the situation Apple is in, the FBI has asked Apple for assistance in unlocking a password-protected iPhone of one of the San Bernardino terrorists.
Tim Cook wrote: We have great respect for the professionals at the FBI, and we believe their intentions are good. Up to this point, we have done everything that is both within our power and within the law to help them. But now the U.S. government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create. They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone.
The main concern of course, is that once a backdoor is built, it’s inevitable that hackers will eventually exploit it. Due to that fact, Apple has refused the FBI’s request.
It’s a feel good story at first: what was formally the world’s largest company standing up to the government. But when you look at Apple’s history of working with law enforcement, you’ll realize this is all one big piece of PR. As the Daily Beast reported:
In a similar case in New York last year, Apple acknowledged that it could extract such data if it wanted to. And according to prosecutors in that case, Apple has unlocked phones for authorities at least 70 times since 2008. (Apple doesn’t dispute this figure.)
In other words, Apple’s stance in the San Bernardino case may not be quite the principled defense that Cook claims it is.
For its part, the government’s public position isn’t clear cut, either. U.S. officials insist that they cannot get past a security feature on the shooter’s iPhone that locks out anyone who doesn’t know its unique password—which even Apple doesn’t have. But in that New York case, a government attorney acknowledged that one U.S. law enforcement agency has already developed the technology to crack at least some iPhones, without the assistance from Apple that officials are demanding now.
So what’s the difference in this case? If Apple is going to publicly pretend to value privacy, they could at least do so in a case that doesn’t pertain to our national security.
[Note: This post was authored by The Analytical Economist]