Editorial: Apple defends privacy in the digital age

The Detroit News

In the fight between Apple Inc. and the FBI, it’s not a question of whether the company can do what the federal government demands, it’s whether it should.

Apple has launched an historic challenge against the FBI to protect Americans’ right to privacy and to keep the federal government from broadly overturning Fourth Amendment warrant protections. It has certainly chosen the thornier path, but its conviction to defend its customers’ private information against demands that mock bedrock American principles should be commended.

Apple CEO Tim Cook posted a public letter on the company’s website last week stating the company won’t comply with a court order to unlock the iPhone of San Bernardino jihadist Syed Rizwan Farook.

It sounds like a simple request. But Apple software has been created specifically to protect user information with default encryption, which ensures a third party can’t access user files. The encryption is tied to each user’s password, about which Apple has no information. If the feature is turned on, an iPhone’s data becomes inaccessible forever after 10 wrong password tries. This helps protect user information from criminals attempting identity theft, hackers and spies.

It’s unclear if that feature was turned on in Farook’s phone, but the FBI isn’t sure, so it’s asking Apple to create new software to get around the company’s original safeguards.

In short, it wants Apple to hack itself.

The Justice Department and has been arguing for some time that the All Writs Act of 1789 – which says courts can “issue all writs necessary or appropriate in aid of their respective jurisdictions and agreeable to the usages and principles of law” — supports its efforts to force phone manufacturers to create backdoors into their security systems. They’re wrong.

Last October, a federal magistrate judge in New York denied the FBI’s attempt to use the All Writs Act in a similar case against Apple. The judge ordered the demand placed an undue burden on the company. And surely it does.

The repercussions of creating the requested software extend far beyond this one case. Creating malware would threaten the personal information of every Apple customer.

National security can’t become a justification for the erosion of constitutional protections. American companies and citizens have the right to their own information, regardless of government pressure otherwise.

And Apple is different from a publicly regulated utility, such as a phone or Internet carrier, which have been co-opted due to their symbiotic relationship with the government.

Apple does not own the phone in question, and has no legal responsibility beyond what it’s already complied with to help the government get to data from Farook’s phone.

Further, there’s no way to ensure the technology, if developed, would remain in the hands of Apple and the government.

Other companies like Google and Microsoft will inevitably also be required to create backdoors to their security systems if the demand is upheld.

Cybersecurity is one of the country’s biggest vulnerabilities, and private companies like Apple are right to fight to protect its customers’ information – from the federal government and criminals alike.