Apple vs FBI encryption row turns rotten

The encryption debate has become incendiary. Is the tech giant right to stand its ground against the US Government?

by Rebecca Smith
Last Updated: 11 Mar 2016

It wasn’t exactly all tea parties and cake beforehand, but Apple’s face-off with the FBI has taken a decidedly hostile turn. The tech giant’s top lawyer has just told reporters that federal prosecutors were ‘offensive’, ‘desperate’ and ‘intended to smear’ the company in the fierce digital privacy fight they’re both involved with.

That came about because the Justice Department submitted a legal brief accusing Apple of trying to overstep its mark in taking power from the government, claiming it had declared itself ‘the primary guardian of Americans’ privacy’. There were also some other digs, including the allegation Apple had previously helped the Chinese government with iPhone security - effectively saying collusion had occurred which undermined consumers’ security.What had been a game of media chess now better resembles a scrappy Saturday night's ice hockey.

This is interesting, of course, because from a business perspective you may question the sense in going up against the FBI at all. From the off, it had several boxes ticked to win public sympathy. The phone belonged to a dead terrorist after all, and to strengthen its case even more, the FBI appealed to relatives of the victims from the shooting to speak out in favour of the its actions. While the argument was framed as privacy vs security, many have noted it’s more of a PR battle.

For Apple, it’s not merely a matter of breaking the encryption on one iPhone. It’s breaking a feature that makes it near impossible for anyone guess the pin code to unlock the phone - essentially creating a tool to unlock any iPhone should the need arise in the future. That’s a tricky precedent to set (as tech rivals Google, Facebook and Microsoft have noted). If permitted, what’s to say more and more tech firms won't be asked to create similar software in the future?

The FBI has tried to diffuse Apple’s arguments by claiming the refusal to help stemmed from ‘concern for its business model and public brand marketing strategy’. Security has clearly long been a significant part of Apple’s pledge to customers. They like the fact that no one can snoop on their phone. There are risks in Apple's actions - not least that it could be portrayed as unpatriotic - but the firm has clearly decided that failin to defend its 'unbreakable' encryption would be an even greater one..

This latest souring in communications suggests the two are becoming less likely to reach a compromise, and nor is there much in the way of legislative guidance around encryption to help.

While there’s a hearing scheduled for later this month, whatever the ruling is it’s likely to be appealed to the district court, then the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and potentially onto the Supreme Court. Public opinion remains torn, so Apple had better hope its uncompromising stance doesn't backfire. If it's forced by a court to comply with the FBI's wishes, it could end up losing not only its reputation for protecting privacy but also facing a backlash over its lack of co-operation. Tough call.

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