On February 16, 2016 Tim Cook released a letter to its customers. Cook’s letter shared with his readers that the United States government had ordered Apple to create a way for the FBI to access Syed Rizwan Farook’s iPhone 5c. Don’t recognize the name? You may recognize his more common title: the San Bernardino shooter. Specifically, the government has requested a work-around to the security feature that wipes all information from an iPhone if the incorrect password in attempted too many times. Removing this security feature, or allowing it to be circumvented, would allow for a “brute force attack”, permitting endless password attempts until the phone unlocks.
Apple has expressed their refusal to comply and intention to fight the order. According to Cook, complying with the order would create a “backdoor” to the encryption and security that Apple has worked to implement in the iPhone. Moreover, Cook, along with other tech giants who have sided with Apple, have expressed that this is a dangerous step because of its implications for privacy. Once this type of backdoor exists, it could be used by anyone––most worrisome are those with malicious intents. According to Cook, complying with this order would make everyone’s iPhone less secure.
Many of you may wonder how the U.S. government believes that it is able able of persuading a tech giant like Apple to weaken the security of their products. The answer is a 227 year-old law called the All Writs Act of 1789.
What is the All Writs Act?
So, what is the All Writs Act? The short video above from Jonathan Mayer gives a thorough explanation of the law. Briefly however, the law states: “The Supreme Court and all courts established by Act of Congress may issue all writs necessary or appropriate in aid of their respective jurisdictions and agreeable to the usages and principles of law.”
With this law, a court can issue a “writ”––a formal legal order––for a multitude of reasons. The act forms a catchall designed to help the government implement and enforce the law. In this case specifically, the United States government feels it necessary to access the iPhone of Farook and requires Apple to comply in the investigation. As a result, the government has created a writ to put the pressure on Apple.
As stated earlier, people are continuously standing up on either side of this debate. Google, Snowden, and the EFF have shown support for Apple, while some other parties like the Trump and China stand against them. There have also been parties expressing that this issue is far more nuanced that it appears on its face. For instance, on February 24, 2016 Bill Gates came out saying the issue was far from black and white and that Apple could potentially aid the government. Further, tech mogul John McAfee boasted that if he was given the phone for a week, he would be able to retrieve the data without a backdoor, betting he would eat his shoe if he failed. Despite a wide breadth of opinions, one thing is clear: This issue is more deeply rooted and contested than initially believed.
Some will argue (and in my opinion, persuasively) that Cook and Apple are swaying their audience by calling this request a “backdoor”–– a buzzword in today’s online landscape. Others will argue (again persuasively, I’d say) that the FBI and U.S. government are trying to minimize the implications of this order. However, regardless of which side of the debate you fall on, Cook brings up one important point that is difficult to argue against: Complying with the government order would set a dangerous precedent for all tech companies and tech consumers.
Because of this, Cook has committed to fighting this order. Putting aside the fact that complying with the order would hinder Apple in an already competitive market, refusing to quietly submit to the government’s writ allows the media, the public, and other tech companies time to critically examine this writ and the outcomes that would stem not only from the created precedent, but also the existence of this software. There are many grey areas to this case that can now be better examined because Tim Cook and Apple have decided to fight the writ. As such, even if Apple loses, this step, was the right one.
About Ryan Jeethan
Ryan is a recent graduate of the University of Waterloo’s Arts & Business program focusing on UW’s unique Speech Communication program.