What You Need To Know About Apple vs. The FBI

The latest privacy battle explained.
The FBI wants Apple to help it access an iPhone 5C
The FBI wants Apple to help it access an iPhone 5C
Bloomberg via Getty Images

You've probably heard that Apple lashed out at the government in a remarkable letter published Wednesday. Tim Cook, the head of the company, criticized a court order seeking a special version of iOS that would help the Federal Bureau of Investigation access data stored on a terrorist's iPhone.

Apple's fight against the FBI is anything but simple -- and we don't know how it's going to turn out. In the most basic sense, the debate is about privacy versus security, with valid arguments on each side. There's a good chance you will be pressured to have an opinion about this in the coming days, so we've gathered some talking points.

First, Understand What The FBI Wants Apple To Do

You've probably heard the words "backdoor" and "encryption" if you've kept up with this at all. Don't worry if you haven't.

Here's the big thing to understand: The government wants Apple to help unlock an iPhone -- not suck data out of it -- by installing a customized version of iOS.

Casey Williams explained this in greater detail in an article on The Huffington Post on Thursday.

So, Why Is This A Big Deal?

The overall concern put forth by Apple is that developing the software to help unlock the phone would create a "backdoor" -- a way into any iOS device owned by suspects and innocent civilians alike. If the backdoor analogy isn't working for you, think of it more like a skeleton key. The basic password you keep on your iPhone to protect your personal data would essentially be useless in the face of law enforcement.

So, this is a big deal because it's theoretically something that will impact your privacy. (Or, if not your privacy, the privacy of millions upon millions of people who own iPhones and iPads.) But it's also a big deal because it's a matter of national security.

As Nellie Bowles wrote for The Guardian, "if our lives are lived through our phones now, how can law enforcement do its job if it can’t get into them?" Best case scenario, authorities use the technology to catch bad people and prevent attacks while good people go on living their lives.

Does The FBI Really Even Need Apple's Help?

Maybe not, which adds a new wrinkle to the whole situation. This specific request is really centered on making things easier for law enforcement. The FBI is trying to "brute force" the iPhone in question by trying every potential password.

As Micah Lee wrote for The Intercept, this can take a really long time with the software as-is. Actually, depending on the password, it could take thousands of years to accomplish. And depending on how the security is set up, guessing an incorrect password enough times could also wipe out all of the data on the iPhone. (For what it's worth, that's not unique to iPhones: My Android phone, like my iPhone, is set up to essentially "self-destruct" if you try and fail to crack its password enough times.)

It's theoretically possible for the FBI to successfully guess a single iPhone's password without Apple's help. But the agency wants Apple to develop a way to bypass the feature that wipes the iPhone's data after unsuccessful guesses, so it appears the FBI does need the company's help if it wants to access this device.

Even still, the FBI has considerable resources allowing it to conduct an investigation without accessing this one smartphone. Dan Wallach, a computer science professor at Rice University, referenced the agency's own hacking in connection to a child pornography case, for example.

The Case Against Apple

Earlier we mentioned the national security concern. But there are also arguments to be made against Apple that go beyond the scope of possible terror threats.

First: Apple has cooperated with law enforcement and given data to the feds many times before. In fact, it's already given data to the FBI in connection with this very terrorism case -- but that had to do with its iCloud service and not an iPhone.

This leads to a secondary concern, which is that the current situation is basically good marketing for Apple. The company's greed isn't really a reason to diminish privacy concerns, but it's enough to make you skeptical about the purity of its motives, given that it provided data to authorities in the past.

Cook's letter has an inspirational flavor, because it appears to stand up for the little guy (that is, anyone who's privileged enough to pay hundreds and hundreds of dollars for Apple's products). But the letter is also kind of a big ad for Apple. You might summarize it like this, if you were feeling critical: "Our phones are the safest in the biz, and we'll protect you against the government! Don't buy Android!"

Apple, as it happens, is locked in an epic business battle with Google, Facebook, and a small number of other tech behemoths. At stake is who makes the devices and the software that serve as our primary gateway to the digital world. The companies that win this battle stand to dominate the consumer technology industry for years, perhaps decades, to come.

The Case For Apple

The most compelling argument in favor of Apple's stand against the FBI is that this could be a slippery slope. If Apple complies with this court order, then there will be additional pressure for it to comply with new requests in the future.

The tool could be used on iPhones beyond the scope of this case and set what some would consider to be an alarming precedent.

Alex Abdo, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, noted that the order might be unconstitutional.

Plus, it sets an example for other nations that grapple with similar problems.

Paranoid? Maybe.

But it, like any other, is a viewpoint worth considering when it comes to the difficult question of policing these devices we've come to pour our lives into.

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