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FBI demand for 'backdoor' puts Apple in tricky position

Tech-giant Apple is appealing against a court order that it should help investigators find a 'back door' into the iPhone. DW's Richard Connor looks at the concerns for privacy and vulnerability to cyber crime.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) request would, to many, appear a reasonable one - to access data hidden inside the phone of a dead terrorist involved in the slaughter of 14 people.

Apple, though, finds itself in a tough spot. The firm has challenged a court order that would force it to help investigators hack into an iPhone 5 belonging to Rizwan Farook, one of the San Bernardino shooters.

The fear is that Apple - if compliant - would find itself compromised, its smart phones potentially vulnerable to hacking because of the de-encryption software it would have helped create.

Google, Twitter and Facebook have all voiced their support for Apple's stance. Such a back door would likely be used more than once, warn the firms, and there's no way of knowing by whom.

USA Kalifornien Schießerei in San Bernardino

Investigators say access to the phone might yield clues about the San Bernardino shootings

In an open letter to customers, Apple CEO Tim Cook said the court order, by US Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym, was unprecedented. The concerns are as much technical as ethical, with fears that the creation of such a "back door" would open a Pandora's Box.

"We are challenging the FBI’s demands with the deepest respect for American democracy and a love of our country," said Cook. "We believe it would be in the best interest of everyone to step back and consider the implications."

"The US government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create."

'Gagged' over security requests

London-based rights group Privacy International told DW that Apple would not even be able to publish such a letter as that written by Cook if the investigation had been a British one. The UK's new draft Investigatory Powers Bill - a part of which went into effect last November, ahead of parliamentary scrutiny - makes it illegal for communication service providers to reveal that law enforcement agencies have requested information.

Privacy International's technology expert Dr. Richard Tynan said the request for a back door to iPhones was a threat to companies as well as individuals.

"We have become accustomed to mere rhetoric and impractical sound bites from law enforcement and intelligence agencies around weakening the security of the devices we all use and trust," said Tynan.

"This is now a concrete step to give the US government the capability to fundamentally weaken the security of our devices and forcefully make US companies complicit in the process."

Backdoor for criminals?

There is, agreed Tynan, no guarantee of the genie staying within the bottle, with criminals and likely to learn the shortcuts into devices - once they exist.

Authorities "simply cannot guarantee that such circumventions will not become known to hackers and cyber criminals, leaving Apple liable for potential breaches of confidential and private details of their customers," Tynan said.

"This sets a dangerous precedent and if the US government is serious about security in an increasingly digital world, undermining and circumventing protective measures such as encryption is a huge step in the wrong direction."

'A matter of proportionality'

Rights group Amnesty International, not averse to be a critic of Apple over its manufacturing practices, also backs the firm's stance in this instance.

USA, Tim Cook

Apple's Tim Cook claims that a back door would be 'too dangerous to create.'

"What Apple did in this case - to challenge that decision - was the right thing to do," said Amnesty deputy director of global issues Sherif Elsayed-Ali.

"It's not about the validity of investigating that crime, or the validity of other enforcement agencies in other countries doing what they can to prevent terrorist acts and preventing violent crime. It's more about, in each case, what is the proportionate thing to do?"

"It's not just a matter of an individual's privacy, is not absolute when the right legal standards are met, and there is crime to be investigated - that police get proper judicial authorization that the action is proportionate, then it's fine to look at an individual's communication."

"The problem is that, here, you're not just undermining the security of one phone but the software that underlies millions of phones."

In light of revelations about spying by agencies such as the US National Security Agency (NSA) and Britain's GCHQ, says Elsayed-Ali, more care is needed.

"We know there have been these surveillance programs ongoing in many countries, without the knowledge of the public and scrutiny from the judiciary. We know that this has been going on. Having even more capability to undertake this kind of surveillance is very problematic."

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