Don’t be too quick to crack open iPhone

Just as necessity is the mother of invention, expediency is the mother of unintended consequences.

The necessity here is the FBI’s desire to unlock the Apple iPhone used by Syed Rizwan Farook, who with his wife, Tashfeen Malik, massacred 14 people and wounded 22 others in the Dec. 2 mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. The invention that the FBI seeks from Apple is a way around the iPhone’s passcode protection, which ordinarily would wipe the device’s memory if the incorrect passcode is entered more than 10 times.

The FBI believes the phone could contain information and communications by Farook that are important to its continuing investigation. The families of the victims of the massacre recently have added their voices to the FBI’s in seeking Apple’s assistance in unlocking the phone. At the same time a new Pew Research Center poll found that 51 percent of Americans believe Apple should help unlock the phone, compared to 38 percent who say it shouldn’t.

The problem, says Apple CEO Tim Cook and others in the electronic security community, is that creating a backdoor could open windows to a host of problems related to individual privacy and national security.

Although law enforcement agencies across the country have smartphones in their possession related to all manner of criminal investigations, this is the first time the federal government has asked Apple to circumvent an iPhone’s passcode. It’s not that Apple can’t write software that would unlock the phone but rather that doing so would create a precedent that would be sought by other law enforcement agencies eager to crack open the phones they have.

Even where those requests would be legitimate, and legal when backed by a court-ordered warrant, there are no assurances that the backdoor couldn’t be used by others whose aims are not legitimate.

“You don’t want to create a backdoor that compromises security and (allows) bad actors to be able to use that vulnerability,” said 1st Congressional District Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Washington, during a meeting with The Herald Editorial Board last week.

And after having created the software patch for the U.S. government, other governments, particularly China, would have additional leverage to pressure Apple for the same tool that it could use on its own citizens and others across the globe.

DelBene, who was an official with Microsoft before winning election to Congress in 2012, has emphasized Internet privacy and security issues during her time in Congress. She voted for the Freedom Act last year that ended the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of cellphone data. She now is backing reforms to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 that would require a warrant for the release of email messages stored on servers to law enforcement.

Apple and other electronic device makers have a self-interest here in protecting the image of their products as being secure. But that doesn’t mean they are wrong about the potential for harm in weakening that security.

The desire by law enforcement to unlock vital evidence in a criminal investigation is understandable, but demanding a company weaken its encryption protections could lead to much greater problems.

Technology is moving quickly, DelBene said.

That speed requires that our moves to balance safety and privacy be careful and measured.

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