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Tim Cook, CEO and leader of Apple, has drawn a line in the sand, declaring that his company does not have and ought not create a skeleton key that would give the company access to iPhones. There has been mounting pressure by law enforcement for the giant tech companies to create such a mechanism because smart phones are seen as enabling terrorist plots.
The letter by Tim Cook is as much about marketing and political sabre-rattling as it is about taking a stand. We notice that the company fell just short of making a vow.
Federal Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym handed down an order essentially telling Apply to use all its powers to bypass the security functions on an iPhone 5C that was used by Syed Rizwan Farook, the husband in the husband-wife couple of the San Bernadino shootings.
In non-techy terms, Apple was ordered to create a back-door-key that would allow the company access to anyone's apple device. This would be step one in rewinding what was thought to be a great step in the direction of privacy protections when Google and Apple announced that they had launched full disk encryption, thus making their own devices inaccessible even to the companies.
Apple's Tim Cook was quick to respond in a letter released only a few hours after the order was handed down. He described the order as an "unprecedented step" in federal government power and opposed the order "which has implications for beyond the legal case at hand."
Actually, the government already tried gaining access without the order, but this was law enforcement's last trick. DOJ obtained Farook's phone by gaining consent by his employer (it was a work phone). But thanks to Apple's encryption technology, they were unable to gain access. What's more, multiple attempts to gain access would cook the data on the phone permanently.
Besides the fact that federal laws are hopelessly behind the times with regards to how to deal with data encryption and privacy, there are concerns that making back-doors to people's phones would allow criminals even easier access to people's lives.
China is a great example. The country is known for making sometimes outrageous demands of the companies that wish to do business within its borders -- including a demand to foreign firms to hand over their encryption keys to the government before they can do business. The Chinese backed off when trade groups silenced it into submission.
Not missing a beat, the Chinese government enacted the country's so-called anti-terrorism law which essentially codified the same demands ostensibly under the guise of aiding law enforcement. There are, after all, many ways to skin a cat.
The more cynical of us would say it is only a matter of time before all countries -- China, USA, you pick -- have obtained the means to access everyone's data.
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