Apple and FBI locked in encryption battle as Google backs tech rival

Apple is currently in the midst of an encryption battle with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), after fighting orders from a federal magistrate to unlock an iPhone belonging to one of the gunmen involved in a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California.

This is just the latest twist in an ongoing battle between the technology industry and security advisors for the Obama administration, surrounding consumer privacy and encryption safeguards build in to mobile devices.

After the federal magistrate's order was issued on Tuesday, Tim Cook responded yesterday with a 1,000 word letter to Apple customers, warning that the government's demands posed a "chilling" breach of privacy. "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. They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone," he said.

"The same engineers who built strong encryption into the iPhone to protect our users would, ironically, be ordered to weaken those protections and make our users less safe."

Although this has become an extremely tense and very public argument, the US Justice Department is showing no signs of backing down, saying: “it is unfortunate that Apple continues to refuse to assist the department in obtaining access to the phone of one of the terrorists involved in a major terror attack on U.S. soil."

To make matters worse for the government, Google also seems to be siding with it's great rival, as chief executive Sundar Pichai posted a five-part comment on Twitter yesterday. In full, the statement reads: "Important post by Tim Cook. Forcing companies to enable hacking could compromise users' privacy. We know that law enforcement and intelligence agencies face significant challenges in protecting the public against crime and terrorism.

"We build secure products to keep your information safe and we give law enforcement access to data based on valid legal orders, but that’s wholly different than requiring companies to enable hacking of customer devices & data. Could be a troubling precedent. Looking forward to a thoughtful and open discussion on this important issue."

This certainly isn't an issue that will be disappearing any time soon. A combination of the current terrorist threat posed by the likes of ISIS and the rise in prominence of cyber security has created a storm of issues that will need to be delicately navigated if any agreement is to be reached.

Industry reaction

Rajiv Gupta, CEO and founder of Skyhigh Networks:

"This is not the first nor will it be the last time companies are put in a position of being asked to turn over private data to the government. There are legitimate concerns about opening trapdoors to address an immediate-term problem with unintended long-term consequences. And there also are legitimate concerns about the government’s ability to keep data secure, given the breaches at the FBI, Homeland Security, and Office of Personnel Management.

“Regardless of how one might feel about the topic, organisations today have access to technologies that allow them to protect confidential data regardless of where is it stored. Security tools like containerisation, data classification and encryption help organisations avoid the blunt instrument of the judicial and legal process."

French Caldwell, former Gartner fellow and chief evangelist at MetricStream:

"Apple may be taking a pre-emptive stand on future government orders for access to data that don’t involve just unlocking a screen. However, tech companies should ensure they are challenging government demands for access and court orders on legal and judicial grounds. The courts have for decades deferred to the US Government on national security issues, and to get a hearing on privacy grounds, tech companies will need to be careful not to alienate the judiciary.

"Judges are not elected, and while they do pay attention to public sentiment, if that sentiment is whipped up by a company publicising its defiance of a court order, the judiciary is not going to be very responsive to that."

David Emm, Principal Security Researcher at Kaspersky Lab:

"Apple’s response to the FBI’s request to gain access to a suspected criminal’s iPhone may not be popular in every quarter, but it isn’t surprising as the firm has committed itself to maintaining the privacy and security of its customers’ personal data. The thing with encryption is there are no half measures – it’s a bit like being pregnant, you either are or you aren’t. Something is either encrypted, or its not, and this is why Apple say they are unable to help the FBI in this case. If they were to support this request, then doing so would jeopardise the security and privacy of all its other customers.

"Having a backdoor in a product or software is all well and good for law enforcement reasons, but it’s a bit like leaving a key under your door mat for your friend. It’s great for letting your friend in, but there is no guarantee it’s your friend who will find it, and not a burglar. If governments had backdoors for Apple products, what is to stop rogue organisations obtaining these backdoors and using them for nefarious purposes?

"It is for this reason that this request, and other similar charters, such as the UK governments proposed snoopers charter, are flawed, and could potentially undermine not only individual privacy, but corporate or national security."

Image Credit: Shutterstock / Andrey Bayda