If the US government succeeds in gaining 'backdoor' access to Apple iPhone data, it could erode important safeguards that protect consumer data across the world.
Today, Apple explains to a US House of Representatives committee why it has refused to help FBI officers break into the phone of Syed Farook, one of the gunmen in the San Bernadino shooting, which left 14 dead.
The case provides an important litmus in how society will determine data access and usage in the future, says Association for Data-driven Marketing and Advertising (ADMA) CEO Jodie Sangster.
“It doesn't just set a dangerous precedent within the country it's happening in, it sets a dangerous precedent for other countries looking at this sort of thing,” she says.
“It is a worrying precedent because there has to be some sort of safeguard in place. It's fine when data is being used for the prevention of crime or terrorism, but if you remove safeguards around that then it can be used for all sorts of different purposes.”
The 'safeguard' Sangster refers to are the legal loopholes law enforcement agencies must currently climb through to compel Apple to mine private consumer data from one of its products.
Previously, Apple complied with around 70 requests under the All Writs Act to extract data from locked phones. But in 2014, the tech giant beefed up its encryption software to such a degree it no longer has the ability to break into its own phones – a move one law enforcement officer raged would make iPhones the smartphone for paedophiles.
The FBI wants Apple to design operating software that allows a backdoor entrance, but the tech giant is fighting its corner, arguing it would set a dangerous precedent and undermine Apple's promise of protecting consumer data.
“Any corporation is going to think about their customers and how they feel about having their data accessed – the law requires them to do that,” Sangster points out. “So its a little bit of a cheap shot because they are damned if they do and damned if they don't.”
Sangster says its a matter of finding common ground between three conflicting issues: a consumers' right to privacy, national security and the government's access to data.
“If the US is going to do that they really need to think of the ramifications or the consequences before they do it,” she says. “They're using a very old piece of legislation (drafted in 1789) to justify this request to get access to data through the backdoor. Clearly it wasn't written with this sort of thing in mind.”
Although the ADMA chief believes law enforcement officers are acting with good intent - to speed up investigations into serious crime - she doesn't believe diluting phone data security addresses the problem.
“This doesn't solve a problem because if people are going to do something wrong they are going to do it regardless,” she says. “If they think the iPhone can be accessed then they just wont use an iPhone. That is always the problem with these measures, it doesn't impact on the people doing the wrong thing.”
UPDATE: In a separate case that has just concluded, a New York judge ruled the US Justice Department cannot force Apple to provide the FBI with access to locked iPhone data in a routine Brooklyn drug case.
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