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A Slippery Slope for Customer Privacy? Apple’s Refusal to Undermine its Own Security Technology

Published onMar 14, 2016
A Slippery Slope for Customer Privacy? Apple’s Refusal to Undermine its Own Security Technology

Apple is taking a stand against a court order that would require Apple to help the FBI unlock the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters.  The court order specifically asks Apple to create a way to disable the feature that automatically wipes the data off an iPhone after ten wrong attempts at the password.  Apple does not have the data the government is asking for and Apple considers such a request “too dangerous to create. They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone.”  Apple argues that with the creation of a backdoor for a one time use, the technology could be used again to defeat decryption.

The court order highlights the tension between security and helping solve a criminal case.  The smartphone is a common everyday good that contains personal information that includes contacts, financial and health information.  In order to protect this important data Apple uses encryption technology.  In a letter to Customers, Apple explained that customers expect Apple to protect their personal information on their product devices such as the iPhone.   Apple does not have access to the encrypted data. Apple has apparently complied with all subpoenas and search warrants related to the San Bernardino Case in relation to data Apple contains.

Apple is caught in a battle.  Apple is standing by its protection of customer data at the request of others calling for Apple to be a “good corporate citizen.” Other technology companies are worried about the potential precedent in this case.  In essence, companies may be compelled by court order to create malware that can bypass the security protections on its own products.   This is why Facebook and Twitter have publically supported Apple in this current case.  The CEO of Google also made a statement that “requiring companies to enable hacking of customer devices and data … could be a troubling precedent.”

There is some precedent for the law requiring technology companies to comply with court orders in relation to the unencryption of certain devices such as computers, credit card records, and videotapes from security cameras.  For example, in 1977, the Supreme Court determined that there is authority to require a phone company to comply with a search warrant for numbers dialed by a customer.  But, some legal scholars argue that the present case will create a slippery slope.  Ahmid Ghappour, from the University of California’s Hastings College of Law, stated the government might then ask Facebook to create an algorithm that helps predict crime.

Apple, CEO Tim Cook, is committed to protecting customer data and will not allow Apple to undermine its own security measures.

Apple currently is involved in other lawsuits that request Apple’s support in helping access information on criminals Apple devices.  For example, in a Brooklyn case, the judge is still determining if such a legal request would be “overly burdensome” for Apple.  But in approximately 155 other cases, the government has not been successful in obtaining search warrants because the phones have Apple operating systems.

Alex Abdo, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberty Union’s privacy and technology section made the statement that “Apple deserves praise for standing up for its right to offer secure devices to all of its customers.”  While it is critical to obtain the data on the San Bernardino shooter’s phone, the security of Americans personal devices like their iPhones may be compromised in the process.  The precedent of this case will highlight if a court can order a company to essentially undermine its own technology that was designed to protect customer data.

*Dianna Shinn is a second year law student at Wake Forest University. She holds a B.A. in English and Political Science from Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA.

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