Sarconi: Apple is right to resist judge’s order to create ‘master key’

There has been a back-and-forth since the 1980s between the government and private companies about how much access the former should have — for the sake of public security — to the advanced technologies companies have been producing. While there have been some public quarrels, the most important fight to date is about to take place.

When a federal judge ordered Apple to assist the FBI in cracking the phone of Syed Farook, she didn’t just say, “let the authorities in through the back door,” she essentially said, “you need to make a master key so they can go in through the front door whenever they want.”

It’s a demand that Apple has already said it will fight hard, and it should. I’m all for national security, but not when it’s going to put the privacy of millions of iPhone users worldwide in question.

The government needs Apple to unlock the phone of Farook, a suspected terrorist in the San Bernardino attack who was killed by police shootout, because San Bernardino County officials reset his iCloud account password. If they hadn’t reset the password, Apple says they would be able to access the phone’s backup without a master key.

Because Apple has assisted law enforcement as many as 70 times, according to The Daily Beast, helping them is not the problem. The issue is that what the FBI is asking is unprecedented.

Lee McKnight, an associate professor in Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies, said that if Apple complies with the judge’s demands, they will open a can of worms that has far-reaching implications.

“Other governments are all going to be watching this case,” McKnight said. “They are asking Apple to make a new custom version of the iOS. Once they have that, it could work with any other iPhone 6 in the world. It’s like the generalized master key.”

That means any government could call on Apple to provide them with the master key if they state it’s for national security reasons. The company’s CEO Tim Cook said in an email to customers that this is not something Apple is comfortable doing.

“Compromising the security of our personal information can ultimately put our personal safety at risk,” Cook said in the email. “That is why encryption has become so important to all of us. For many years, we have used encryption to protect our customer’s data because we believe it’s the only way to keep their information safe.”

This also means that once a master key is created, it brings into picture the possibility of a holy grail for hackers. Given the amount of security breaches on U.S. government departments, I’m not confident this will stay under the authority’s control.

Privacy, now more than ever, needs to be considered a valuable commodity. That, of course, is harder to defend when the public perception is that you are safeguarding the privacy of a suspected terrorist. The reality of the situation is that Apple is protecting the information of us all, but they have just been put in a tough situation.

If the FBI asked Apple to only hack Farook’s phone, this would be a much different situation. But, instead, they are asking for something that oversteps the hard-to-see boundary that exists between national security and public privacy.

Ultimately, this could be a fight that could go all 12 rounds.

“What I would be predicting is that this will be in the courts until at least next year,” McKnight said. “It could really end up before the grand Supreme Court.”

That means the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia could play heavily into the Supreme Court’s final decision. Whoever the new justice is, their stance on privacy versus security may decide what will be an extremely important case.

If a master key is created, everyone with a smartphone loses a little bit of security. If Apple has to make one, why wouldn’t companies like Samsung have to also?

This is just one question in a sea of many that will arise is Apple loses.

Considering our increasing dependence on phones and the massive amounts of financial and personal information we put on them, that’s a scary proposition.

Paul Sarconi is a senior broadcast and digital journalism major. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at and followed on Twitter @paulsarconi.


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