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Apple, the FBI, and the Public; Is the Asking Price Too High?

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I am sure you recall the horrific mass shooting during a holiday party last December in San Bernardino California where 14 people were killed, and 21 were left wounded. The two shooters were also killed in an ensuing gun battle with law enforcement officers. The scene of the shootout between police and Syed Rizwan Farookof and his wife, 27-year-old Tashfeen Malik, was repeatedly shown across television screens and on every medium of social media.

I wondered if this latest battle would soon make us desensitized to the fear, shock, and bloody massacres that were sadly becoming an ugly addition to American society. It triggered millions of responses on Twitter and prompted many politicians to voice their opinions on various aspects of the shootings. The topics heard from American officials, government leaders, and presidential candidates ranged from stricter gun control laws, to immigration issues, and of course Donald Trump’s infamous call for a ban on all Muslims. In the wake of the senseless tragedy we did not think we would be adding privacy control on personal cell phones to this list.

However, we are an impasse some three months later as the FBI is struggling to obtain what they feel is possible key information on one the terrorist’s cell phones. The data is locked away on an Apple iPhone 5c cell phone owned by the employer of Farookof. The FBI is asking Apple to create a “unique version of iOS that would bypass security protections on the iPhone Lock screen. It would also add a completely new capability so that passcode tries could be entered electronically” (Apple, Customer Service Response, 2016). Apple is objecting to this request, and certainly not for any type of association with the terrorists, but for greater security precautions that would protect their customers (they say). The only barrier that appears to be holding Apple back from complying is their concern that this technology, if they did create it, would fall into the hands of extremely efficient hackers and everyone’s privacy would be jeopardized.

However, this is where innovation can shine in this volatile space if Apple or another tech company can create a standalone feature that would work on a specific phone to gather the information needed. The circumstances would only pertain to extreme cases such as this, or the Paris bombings, or the countless other mass shootings we have endured here in the U.S. I have hope that this technology can be achieved and will be a part of our societies in the future. We are already at the door to meet this crucial requirement, we only need the next essential piece, as Steven Johnson writes about in his book Where Good Ideas Come From, when he posits the “adjacent possible.” Johnson (2010) stated, “ What the adjacent possible tells us is that at any moment the world is capable of extraordinary change, but only certain changes can happen when boundaries are explored.” I believe data privacy is salient, but I also believe that circumstances such as this mass shooting should take precedence as an opportunity to create something new, and so strategically well secured it could only be strictly used in these scenarios…scenarios that would protect citizens globally, as well as here in the U.S.

Apple’s (2016) response to the question of whether they can create this new technology is yes, but as they state it goes against their core beliefs in protecting users.

Yes, it is certainly possible to create an entirely new operating system to undermine our security features as the government wants. But it’s something we believe is too dangerous to do. The only way to guarantee that such a powerful tool isn’t abused and doesn’t fall into the wrong hands is to never create it. (Apple.com, Customer Letter, 2016)

Is the FBI’s asking too much of Apple? After all, on previous Apple operating systems, they assisted the government in extracting data from an iPhone, so why is this time different? I wonder under what conditions the previous acts were to warrant Apple in complying with the government’s orders, and what makes those 14 innocent victims and 21 survivors not worth the chance to take an innovative concept already in place to the next adjacent possible?

Angela Johnson @aj7124_angela

Emerging Media Graduate Student

Loyola University