Revolutionary Measures

Will the FBI take a bite out of Apple?

Apple has built itself into the largest quoted company in the world by being different. From the early days of the Macintosh computer, through the iconic iMac and onto the iPod, iPad and iPhone, its products have challenged the orthodox approach with a combination of design and features.

English: The logo for Apple Computer, now Appl...

It has extended this into the virtual world. Unlike competitors such as Google and Facebook, which have built businesses essentially based on collecting and selling personal data to advertisers, Apple has positioned itself as a champion of privacy. In a speech in 2015 CEO Tim Cook stated, “We believe the customer should be in control of their own information.

This approach extends to protecting personal information stored on Apple devices and within iCloud. All iPhones and iPads are encrypted by default, meaning that even Apple itself cannot access the data on them. This obviously gives an unprecedented layer of protection for personal data, which has been particularly welcomed after Edward Snowden’s revelations of widespread snooping by intelligence services on electronic communications.

However protecting normal citizens against hackers, criminals and terrorists is one thing, but what happens when the iPhone in question actually belongs to a terrorist? This is the current case, being hotly debated in the media and on social media. Following the San Bernadino terrorist shootings last year, the FBI recovered one of the perpetrator’s iPhones. Obviously this is locked with a 4 digit passcode, and simply cycling through all possible combinations is impossible – after a number of failed tries iPhones are programmed to erase all data to combat this type of brute force attack.

Consequently, the FBI has asked Apple to help, removing the erase feature from this specific phone and allowing it to try and guess the password electronically, rather than having to type in the potential 10,000 combinations. It has refused, rejecting a court order and issuing an open letter stating that it will not ‘hack itself’ and create an insecure back door into its products that could be exploited by others.

In many ways Apple has a point – even without the Snowden revelations, governments have a poor record of keeping backdoors safe. This was demonstrated by the US Transportation Security Administration, which mandated that all luggage manufacturers created a skeleton key that could be used to open any suitcase. A photo of the master key was accidentally printed in the Washington Post, allowing criminals to model and create it using 3D printers.

At the same time, the FBI is adamant that it is not asking for access to the backdoor itself – it says it is happy for Apple to disable the erase feature itself and provide access to the data, without telling the Feds how it was done. Essentially Apple is putting itself above the law, which has potentially chilling ramifications given its size, number of users and global reach. It isn’t the plucky underdog it was when the Mac first went up against the PC.

The high profile nature of the case, and the fact that it involves a proven terrorist further complicates matters – most right-thinking people would want to help the government in this scenario. Perhaps the wisest words have come from Bill Gates, who is calling for a wider debate on the balance between privacy and accessibility, irrespective of the case in hand.

As I’ve said before, a reputation for protecting user information is a central part of the Apple brand – and is only becoming more important as the company branches into payments (Apple Pay) and personal health data. Therefore its principled stance makes perfect sense from a marketing point of view. It may well have to eventually comply in some way, but it will have lived up to its promise to fight for privacy, keeping the rest of its community happy, and consequently protected its brand. However what the whole case shows is that we need a grown-up, rational debate about who has access to our personal data, under what circumstances and how they can access it.

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February 24, 2016 - Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

2 Comments »

  1. […] of things. We turn to Google for search and email, Amazon for ecommerce, Facebook for social and Apple for mobile apps. There is obviously some competition – Google’s Android versus Apple iOS for […]

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  2. […] the papers, the number of bad things happening on the internet, from simple fraud to terrorist plotting, seems to be increasing exponentially, although whether this is true or is just the result of […]

    Pingback by Why technology companies have to play by different rules now « Revolutionary Measures | June 28, 2017 | Reply


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