On Wednesday, we awoke to a chilling story: Under the guise of fighting terrorism, the FBI obtained an order from a federal court compelling Apple to build a “master key” that would unlock user information and data on the phone of one of the San Bernardino shooters.
The government’s request, which Apple opposed, is tantamount to giving the world unfettered access to your smartphone, and it should send shivers down the spines of law-abiding people worldwide.
Put simply, the government wants the passcode to your smartphone. In years past, cellphone manufacturers would have been able to provide this, but no longer.
In response to overwhelming customer demand for protection and minimum levels of privacy, both Apple and Samsung created new operating systems with additional layers of security that do not give the manufacturer access to user information.
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As is to be expected, this watershed change was not well received by many law enforcement and government officials, particularly in the FBI, who are now using the San Bernardino tragedy to implement radical and far-reaching changes.
If Apple complies and creates software to circumvent its security features, a “back door,” there is no turning back.
As Apple CEO Tim Cook explained by customer letter: “[O]nce created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices. In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks — from restaurants and banks to stores and homes. No reasonable person would find that acceptable.”
Cook is correct. Not only would the government have the ability to access encrypted and password protected information, but the software could find its way into to the world at large, where it can be exploited by criminals, nation states and other nefarious third parties.
The FBI can offer no guarantee to the contrary, and that is a frightening thought.
Encryption, at bottom, is good. But to weaken it even in just one instance is to weaken it in all, and that is unacceptable.
We must not let the FBI and politicians who agree with them to capitalize on this horrible tragedy and to deprive us of our privacy in this increasingly digital world.
What seems to be an innocuous request today could one day become the basis for widespread abuse, creating a situation in which companies are forced to breach the covenant they hold with customers to protect their information.
It bears repeating that those who support back doors are well intentioned, as the threat of crime and terrorism is real.
But as the debate over encryption grows, it must be remembered that our fundamental rights, including our right to privacy, are not subservient to the desires of law enforcement.
Encryption may make life marginally tougher for those who prosecute wrongdoers, but no more so than the right to defense counsel, or the Fifth Amendment right against self incrimination, or countless other basic protections.
The benefits of encrypted technology to consumers, to businesses and to private citizens far outweigh the government’s need to create access based on isolated incidents. One bad apple shouldn’t mean we cut down the entire apple tree.
Victor Cocchia is co-founder of Vysk Communications, a producer of encrypted hardware with encrypted software headquartered in San Antonio.