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Is There a Middle Ground for Apple and the FBI?

Jeff Hall

Posted on February 19, 2016 16:41

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Nobody wants to make our cell phones less secure. But we all want the authorities to be able to chase down terrorists (unless you happen to be a terrorist). Here's an idea that might break the impasse.

As everyone knows by now, the FBI asked Apple to open a "back door" to the phone of the terrorist who shot a bunch of people in San Bernardino. 

When I first heard this, I was shocked. 

How could Apple refuse to help the FBI?  National security is at stake.

But smart people I respect told me to slow down and not form any rash judgments. 

To open a back door to one phone could result in a leak that would make it possible for all kinds of people -- including hackers and terrorists -- and governments -- to rush through the new back door opening.

And if Apple bends for U.S. authorities, what's to prevent China or Russia or Iran or some other country from making the same demands of Apple when one of their citizens causes "trouble"?

Had we all had cell phones during the American Revolution, it's pretty clear the British authorities would have demanded access to the cell phone records of Sam Adams, Paul Revere, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and many others. 

One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.

But now we have ISIS.   This scourge feels very different than anything that has come before. 

Surely we want to stop any plot we can in its tracks.

So is there an answer? 

I don't know that there is an answer that will satisfy many, but here's a try. 

First, the FBI should get a proper court order asking Apple's help. 

Apple should continue to resist in court, setting up a trial over this issue. 

Both sides would have to agree that if Apple cooperates with the FBI in this one case, no legal precedent would be set.  This would be a one-time exception. 

The FBI could then hand the phone over to Apple. 

Apple could then do its own forensics in a very private and concealed way. 

Whatever Apple learns about the terrorists, it would turn over to the FBI. 

Apple would then need to work very hard to make sure whoever unlocked the back door never reveals to the outside world what he or she has done. 

Apple is outstanding when it comes to keeping secrets; surely this is one it could protect as well.

Then, both sides can await to see how the courts eventually rule on this.  And that decision would govern the rules of the road going forward.

I suppose it's possible to argue that there is no rush here.  The husband-and-wife terrorists are dead, the damage has been done. 

But the husband knew enough about the phone to turn off the cloud storage feature prior to the terrorist attack, so maybe there's something hidden inside the phone he didn't want revealed.  That seems pretty obvious.

So if the FBI is to get any useful intelligence out of the phone, it needs to move quickly -- if it's not already too late.  Any bad guys the terrorists were talking to surely have covered as many tracks as they can.

But this issue won't go away, so we might as well get a ruling from the courts, the sooner the better. 

It's not just terrorists who will be affected by all this -- we're talking thieves, kidnappers, murderers and other bad guys.

And of course, everyday citizens are affected as well.  We have rights, too.  We want our government to do everything in its power to stop the bad guys. 

Apple has rights here, as well.  If opening a back door hurts its sales, that could hurt both Apple and the American economy.  

Whatever ruling comes from the courts must apply to all phone manufacturers.  I'm guessing this would soon lead to discussions about email accounts, social media pages and the like. 

I know we don't want to make it easy for authorities to spy on innocent citizens, but it feels like sometimes we need to make exceptions to the rules.  We live in rather extraordinary times, when someone can carry around a dirty bomb in a suitcase. 

I am by no means claiming terrific insight or wisdom here and I invite others to comment on this.  This is a question society needs to answer -- and quickly.  We need a court ruling.


Jeff Hall

Posted on February 19, 2016 16:41


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