A fascinating fight over privacy and security is developing between the two biggest businesses in their respective fields: Apple (one of the most valued companies in the world) and the FBI (top dog in America’s law enforcement agencies and arguably the best-known such agency globally).

The showdown is about recovering data from a single iPhone used by a government employee (Syed Farook) who is accused of killing 14 people in San Bernardino in the US last December. But the scope of it extends much, much further.

Because iPhones have security settings as well as hardware that prevents anyone cracking the settings, including Apple itself, a US judge ruled that Apple should create a version of its software to allow the FBI to hack into the phone, which runs on Apple’s iOS. This software has been jokingly named FBiOS and doesn’t exist yet.

Apple CEO Tim Cook has come out firing in his defence against such an action — calling the FBI’s request “chilling”. And so he should.

Apple sells its products to customers who know that their privacy is safe and secure, and who value that; people do not want anyone else to read their e-mail messages or steal their credit card numbers.

Cook argues, and much of Silicon Valley and its tech firms agree, that this would set a dangerous precedent.

On the face of it, this seems a legitimate request from a law enforcement agency looking for information about terrorists. But the implications are far reaching.

First, in this instance it seems Farook took enough precautions to make sure there would be no useful data left. With his wife, who took part in the shooting, he destroyed two other phones and a laptop before the attack; and stopped backing up to the iCloud backup service that the FBI wants to get access to.

Second, the legal grounds are bizarrely outdated: the California judge has used the All Writs Act passed in 1789 by President George Washington. Yes, that’s 227 years ago — 90 years before Thomas Edison received his patent for the light bulb (in 1879) and 87 years before Alexander Graham Bell made the first telephone call (in 1876).

If that isn’t flimsy legal footing, then the body of water at President Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla residence really was a “firepool”.

Third, the FBiOS software envisaged could be used by other, less honourable actors with much more nefarious intentions, including hackers.

And, if the US (with all its protection of civil liberties and privacy) engages in such practices (and knocks itself off its own moral high ground), what is to stop totalitarian regimes with less regard for human rights from doing the same?

Dissidents in China, Myanmar, Syria and other authoritorian or failed states are likely to be the indirect victims of this software, should it ever be created.

Fourth, the “if you’ve got nothing to hide, why are you afraid” argument does not hold. I do have nothing to hide, except that really important thing called personal liberty, or my right to privacy. It’s not for someone else to decide what should be private for me or not. Not even Facebook.

Fifth, there are more than enough threats on the Internet (from hackers, scammers, phishers and the like) to be worried about, without the fear that if your phone gets into their hands they can hack into it.

Finally, the biggest concern is that this would set a dangerous precedent.

The erosion of any personal liberties by any state is always cause for concern.

At last year’s state of the nation address, SA’s law enforcement agencies seemingly thought nothing of using cellphone signal jammers in parliament to prevent journalists from reporting on what turned out to be riotous scenes.

However, that the FBI chose to do this in a public court (it could have done it secretly) is ultimately a positive thing. All this is out in the open.

Meanwhile, Apple is planning on making an even more secure iPhone. And that can only be a good thing.

Shapshak is editor and publisher of Stuff magazine

This article first appeared in the Financial Mail

Please sign in or register to comment.