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Legal battle between the FBI and Apple over encryption could have profound consequences

Apple has gone head-to-head with the US Federal Bureau of Investigation after it was called upon by a US federal magistrate to unlock an iPhone. Not any iPhone, though; it’s one that belonged to one of the killers in the December shootings that took place in San Bernardino. Apple is resisting and this legal battle is expected by many to end up in the Supreme Court.

Apple’s decision has been criticised and it has been accused by US Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas of choosing to protect a dead terrorist’s privacy, rather than the security of US people.

Apple CEO Tim Cook’s responded: “We have no sympathy for terrorists. But now the US government has asked us for something we simply do not have and something we consider too dangerous to create. It has asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone.”

According to technical and legal experts, this is a confrontation that has been building up for some time.

US law is based on legal precedent and the concern, at least among some surveillance experts, is that if the FBI does gain access to this phone, then technology companies will be forced to produce hacking tools and spyware for the government and that a ruling made in the US could ‘snowball around the world’.

Where national security and personal digital security begins and ends remains open to debate and Apple added to the mix by introducing advanced encryption to the iPhone’s operating system in 2014.

The FBI has since asked Apple to redesign its products, to either disable the encryption or to open up the phone’s content on a case by case basis.

This backdoor approach to encryption is an important battle and it’s not just the US that is seeking to ‘enable the hacking of customer devices and data’; a growing number of governments around the world are seeking to do likewise.

Worryingly, such a backdoor would not be available only to governments; cyber criminals would also be keen to exploit its existence.

Google chief executive Sundar Pichai has warned that if the FBI succeeds, it ‘could be a troubling precedent’. This commentator, for one, tends to agree.

Neil Tyler

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