Deconstructing the Apple v FBI showdown

Kenneth Owen, PhD Candidate, Information Systems | Hamilton | March 31, 2016

apple-and-fbiIn a surprise move this week, the FBI announced it was abandoning its efforts to use the courts to compel Apple to unlock the contents of an iPhone.

The iPhone in question previously belonged to Syed Farook, who killed 14 people and injured 22 others with the assistance of his wife, Tashfeen Malik, during a terror attack in San Bernadino, California last December.

The FBI now claims it has successfully accessed the contents of Farook’s iPhone with the help of an undisclosed external business. So, is the war over? Did somebody win? The FBI got what it wanted, but so did Apple. So is the world safe again? The simple answer is no.

Apple took the high ground in this case and defended the moral position that society needs strong encryption, and that capitulating to the FBI’s demands was like opening Pandora’s box.

Apple prides itself on offering a secure product. If they did as the FBI had asked, they would have lost significant credibility in the consumer electronics market. In fact, one might argue that Apple’s whole identity as an edgy, anti-establishment company was at stake – an image it has carefully cultivated since the 1980s.

While the company’s image as a rebel has survived the fight, its reputation as a secure product is now in limbo.

For Apple and its millions of customers, the question is this – how did the FBI do it? Right now the FBI isn’t telling, and by withholding this information it’s tarnishing Apple’s reputation.

From the FBI’s perspective, the court case was just the precedent it needed to begin advocating for backdoors in encryption software.

From the FBI’s perspective, the court case was just the precedent it needed to begin advocating for backdoors in encryption software.

The FBI may have been caught off guard by Apple’s resistance, too. After all, Apple has been known to assist in unlocking devices in the past for law enforcement. Not to mention the iPhone in question was the property of a deceased terrorist. So even though the FBI recovered the phone’s contents, in some ways they didn’t get what they really wanted.

There were other stakeholders involved it this battle, too. Google and fellow industry leaders had a vested interest in the outcome of this case. If Apple was forced to comply and a legal precedent was set, Google and other players would have to follow suit in the future.

Consumers also had a stake in the debate. Good encryption is like a good fence – it keeps the neighbours friendly, but also keeps them out.

So who won? Not Apple. They now have to deal with the backlash of having a vulnerable product, and they have no idea where to look to fix the weakness.

Not the FBI, either. They got the data, but missed the big prize in setting a legal precedent.

How about the consumer? Most people still use weak passwords and are generally law abiding, so their world did not really change.

The closest anyone comes to being a winner is the rest of the telecommunications, encryption and IT security industries. They’re the ones who really emerged unscathed. The status quo has been preserved.

ken-owen-thKenneth Owen joined DeGroote’s PhD program in September 2010. His research interests are focused on the interactions between humans and their data, and the interfaces they use to turn that data into a valuable asset in a business.

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