FBI’s Demand for an Apple iPhone Hack Could be Turning Point for Business

We’ve all heard of Apple’s refusal to provide a “back-door” to bypass the security features on an iPhone belonging to the perpetrator of the terrible terrorist attack in California. That law enforcement wants to investigate the data does not concern me. But the subpoena directs Apple to create a program that will bypass its own security to unlock the phone to retrieve data not captured in the last iCloud backup.

Many think the government’s actions are justified, and see no reason why the data on this phone should be protected. The FBI is proceeding pursuant to a lawfully obtained court order, and therefore argues that its request will only effect this one investigation, into this one phone and could save additional lives. But where will government’s ability to reach into a private business lead?

Although Apple has cooperated with law enforcement on numerous occasions in the past, for a myriad of reasons, Apple refuses to create this “hack” of its own software. I find it troubling that the subpoena requires Apple to affirmatively build a new program. This is not a case where the technology is available, and they just need Apple to access or apply it. How far may the government go in requiring a business to devote time, resources and expertise to developing a technology for use in a “single” investigation?

And that begs the question is this really a single use instance? A program that would be able to crack open this phone, will also able to open all phones running the same operating system. Will law enforcement then regularly issues subpoenas to Apple to hack other phones, in less compelling circumstances? Or will they subpoena other businesses, directing them to devote their assets to assist in investigations, arguing that the precedent is set.

Once created, it will be virtually impossible to prevent unauthorized access or prohibit inappropriate use of the hacking tool. Anything used in the cyberworld is at risk. As we have seen time and again, even the most sophisticated corporations are breached by talented hackers looking for a way in. The fact of a lawfully ordered subpoena in this case is of little consequence. China is Apple’s second largest market.  Will the Chinese government seek a Court order from an American Court, consistent with due process principles before demanding that Apple provide access to iPhone there?  Doubtful.

The government has a compelling argument that they are acting for the safety of the American people. Apple has a legitimate interest in protecting its technology, the privacy of its customers, and its ability to do business in other countries, all to preserve its bottom line. It will be interesting to see which market powerhouse – the U.S. Government or the world’s richest company – prevails.

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