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BW Businessworld

Of Privacy, Freedom And Security

Despite pressure from FBI, Apple refuses to build a “backdoor” in its iPhone software as it would set a dangerous precedent

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If there exists a loophole, it will be exploited. If lawyers swear by this premise, hackers thrive by proving it true. In the networked world of information technology, the saying goes, “there are only two kinds of people in the world. Those who have been hacked, and those who don’t know they have been hacked”.

Apple, the maker of the eponymous iPhone, a brand that brought in $155 billion revenues in 2014-15, 67 per cent of the company’s total revenues, is trying to fix that, by keeping the basic security of the iPhone entirely within the phone, inaccessible to anybody else, so that not even the manufacturer can break into it.

But now, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), America’s internal investigation agency, needs to peek inside the iPhone (5c, in case you are curious) of a man who went on a shooting spree in December 2014, and has been since dead. The phone in question is programmed to wipe itself clean if a wrong password is entered 10 times. FBI wants Apple to write a program to circumvent the attempt limit, so it can then use a super-computer to try all possible combinations of six characters to break into the phone. Apple claims it has complied with lawful requests so far to part with information regarding the man’s phone, such as the data uploaded to the Cloud. But this latest demand, it cannot accede to.

At stake is national security, says FBI. On 16 February, it got a lower court to issue an order to Apple to comply with the request. The phone company, however, is not one to give up without a fight. In a letter to its customers last week, Apple CEO Timothy Cook explained why it won’t comply with the orders. “The government would have us remove security features and add new capabilities to the operating system, allowing a passcode to be input electronically. This would make it easier to unlock an iPhone by “brute force,” trying thousands or millions of combinations with the speed of a modern computer,” he says.

The FBI is having none of that. And why not — if a crime was committed within your house, the police can break-in to investigate. Why should it be any different in the virtual world? Given that our lives are increasingly digital first, how can an investigating officer not have the powers to enter your digital world if suspected of a crime?

If only it were that simple. Civil liberty activists argue that the FBI’s request does not merely allow the police to break open the locks, it virtually allows them to build a tunnel into your house for unhindered access. And try as it might to cover up the trail afterwards, the trace will remain, making it easier for a professional thief to exploit. Or even more scaring is the fact that if he (most likely, it) knows that such a tunnel exists, he would use it to break into anybody’s house. Now does Apple willingly create a tool that could potentially expose its users to malicious players?

Silicon Valley executives, just recovering from the aftermath of the Edward Snowden revelations, are beginning to come out in support of Apple’s stance. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has said he ‘sympathises with Apple’. Google chief Sundar Pichai also came out in support. This is a conundrum that each of them will have to face, or probably are already facing. When Blackberry came to India, the UPA government of the day arm-twisted the company into giving some sort of oversight to security agencies over what was known as the most secure of devices. Facebook’s recent release of requests from the government of India to censor users shows where the balance of power lies.

“This is a question that is baffling all technology companies today,” says Mukul Shrivastava, partner, Fraud Investigation and Dispute Services, Ernst & Young. “The dilemma is on two grounds, the first is, who will assume the responsibility of guardianship of this critical unlocking mechanism and the second is, once you comply with the first request, will there be hordes of others that will emerge,” he says.

The FBI and the White House have clarified saying that their request is only for a one-time entry into a single unit of an Apple phone. But it has since emerged that there are, in fact, several such requests pending from the security agencies. One instance of compliance will open up the floodgates, and then there will be nothing to stop them. “The government could extend this breach of privacy and demand that Apple build surveillance software to intercept your messages, access your health records or financial data, track your location, or even access your phone’s microphone or camera without your knowledge,” says Cook in his letter. This gets complicated when you consider that with the advent of the Internet of Things, pretty much all our gadgets are going to be electronically connected, making the risk of a security breach, as well as rogue surveillance, even more threatening.

Arguably, Apple is merely making a business case. In 2015, it sold $59 billion worth of products in China. There was a time, however, when CEO Cook had to strenuously negotiate with the Chinese authorities to allow them to sell a phone that didn’t lend itself to surveillance in the country. If the FBI can prevail over the company to get a backdoor entry into one phone, then what is to stop the Chinese authorities from insisting on the same? In China, the target will most likely be a dissident, rather than a potential terrorist. With $59 billion at stake, it is not difficult to guess who will blink first.

Digital anonymity is a new paradigm that security agencies are still grappling with. Gadgets secure from their prying eyes are certainly unbeholden. To them — and in these times of ultra-nationalism, to the general public — the principle of privacy is a dispensable luxury. The Indian government has, in fact, lately taken the view that privacy is not a fundamental right, even though the Supreme Court has previously expressed that it is, in the phone tapping case of 1997. The question will be now decided by a Constitution Bench of the apex Court.

Be that as it may, it is also true that the nature of the beast is such that neither law enforcement, nor the general public, know the potential impact of opening up another avenue for mass surveillance (it is but a pipe-dream to imagine that once activated, the security agencies will restrict themselves to looking at a few high-risk devices) on the future.

The New York Times, in 1971, published what is now famously known as the Pentagon Papers, an exposé on the secret bombings in neighbouring South East Asian countries as part of the Vietnam War. Not only did it raise the pitch against American foreign policy abroad, but it also told Americans that their government was lying to them. The Times was then accused of undermining national security by publishing; but by claiming the Americans’ right to know, NYT took the battle all the way to the Supreme Court, and eventually won and created a landmark in press rights. Will this be Apple’s NYT moment?

The author is a Delhi-based lawyer