On December 2, 2015, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik walked into a holiday party at the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health and opened fire on the people inside, killing 14 and injuring 22. Shortly thereafter, the couple was killed in a hail of bullets after a shootout with police.
As we learned more about Syed and Tashfeen, we learned that they’d pledged allegiance to ISIS in the days leading up to the attack, and that their act of domestic terror was 100 percent pre-meditated. We learned that there was at least one complicit accomplice, and that there may have been a wider network of others.
But, in the immediate weeks following the incident, another set of circumstances emerged that involved more than just the two dead terrorists and the San Bernardino community. When the FBI went to tech giants Apple Inc. to obtain their assistance in unlocking one of the shooters’ phones, Apple formally declined to do so.
And that’s where things got weird. If you’ve been too busy to pay particular attention to this story, or you’re not quite sure why you should care, here’s our breakdown of the key aspects of the case and why they are really freaking important to anyone who currently owns, has owned, or ever intends to own a smartphone of any variety.
Privacy Vs. National Security
Essentially, this case is about more than just unlocking a dead terrorist’s phone. It’s rehashing the age-old debate about the value of national security vs. personal privacy. The FBI (and federal government) believes that people should be willing to sacrifice their personal freedoms and privacies for the greater good (or, at least, what they deem to be the greater good), and that companies should be willing to help law enforcement agencies in any way they can — it’s the American way.
Apple Inc. (and many others) disagrees. Apple has vehemently opposed the FBI’s requests to help assist them in unlocking the phone and accessing the terrorist’s encrypted data, even though doing so would allow the FBI to learn more about the terrorists and their actions: if there were any yet unnamed accomplices, if there were any other planned attacks, if this was legitimately financed by ISIS, etc.
Which, at first, sounds like a fairly indefensible position for them to take…until you read the fine print.
What does the FBI want, exactly?
Truth be told, the FBI asked Apple for way more than just help unlocking one iPhone. It’s not like they called Apple up and were like, “Bro, just do us this one solid and we’ll never forget it — especially during tax time next year, wink wink.”
What the FBI actually requested was for Apple to create an entirely new version of the phone’s iOS operating system that could be installed on any iPhone 5 (yes, that includes yours), and would disable data encryption and allow the FBI access to the information they want — including access to the shooter’s online activity in the months leading up to the attacks.
It’s important to note that Apple didn’t flatly refuse to assist the government in accessing the phone. In fact, the company proposed no less than four alternative methods of accessing all the information the FBI was after. Apple routinely assists law enforcement agencies in their investigations. This time was different because the FBI wasn’t just looking for the information on one phone; they were looking for a way to ensure access to every phone from here on out.
In order to do so, they made unprecedented use of something called the All Writs act of 1789. And, for whatever reason, a judge agreed with them.
What is the All Writs Act of 1789, and why should I care?
Without going too heavily into the legal jargon of it all, the All Writs Act of 1789 is a section of the U.S. federal penal code that requires all U.S. courts to issue written commands at the behest of state and federal law enforcement and investigation agencies.
Basically, it’s a code that was originally signed into law by George Washington himself, and allows judges the power to issue official orders in order to compel people to cooperate with federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies — or face the consequences.
According to Smithsonian Magazine, the law has been used both effectively and ineffectively before. In 1977, a judge ruled that phone companies must assist in setting up devices that record all numbers called from a specific phone line, and in 1999 a judge ruled that cellphone providers must be able to geolocate their customers’ phones at all times.
However, the All Writs Act was declined in a 2005 case, where it was decided that the government couldn’t force a phone company to allow real-time tracking of their customers’ phones without a warrant.
…And thank God for that.
Where do things stand now, and what does it all mean?
As things are, Apple is appealing the judge’s decision that they need to unlock the phone, and they’re still standing strong against government. In their eyes, they’re doing that in support of the privacy not just of their customers, but of people everywhere.
Apple CEO Tim Cook wrote and released an open letter to Apple users back in January, and it sums up his (and Apple’s) feelings on the matter pretty well.
Here’s an excerpt:
“The United States government has demanded that Apple take an unprecedented step which threatens the security of our customers. We oppose this order, which has implications far beyond the legal case at hand.”
Essentially, Apple is smart enough to understand the bigger picture here. That is, by allowing the FBI and courts to bully them into building this new unencrypted iOS operating system, they set a dangerous precedent that would allow the FBI to force similar action upon virtually any brand or tech company out there — everything from Samsung to Google and Facebook.
And that’s really, really dangerous.
In fact, Congress agrees, and this week lawmakers in both congressional parties told FBI Director James Comey that his requests of Apple were far overreaching and unnecessary. They even accused the agency of completely undermining both privacy and cybersecurity on the whole. And, in a country whose government can’t even decide on something as simple as medical marijuana use, that kind of political coherence speaks pretty damn loudly.
As stated above, the road ahead for Apple is going to be long, twisty, and very likely uphill. But it’s worth bearing in mind that this particular journey is important to every single American, and is something we should all be paying very close attention to if we value our personal privacy.
We hope this brief synopsis of the situation helped.
- Words: Maxwell Barna
- Main Image: MIKE SEGAR / Reuters