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Mace & Crown | December 16, 2017

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A Small Victory for Apple Over FBI, Debate Continues

A Small Victory for Apple Over FBI, Debate Continues
Ross Reelachart
Technology Editor

A month ago, the war between privacy and security gained one of its highest profile battles when the FBI had ordered Apple Inc. to provide a backdoor to the iPhone operating system. Apple publicly refused. What followed was a fierce and open tug-of-war between the government agency, whom had seemingly found no way to obtain data inside the iPhone of the San Bernardino terrorist, and the technology giant, whom feared setting a dangerous precedent where the FBI could have access to anyone’s personal information.

Many other tech giants threw their weight behind Apple’s decision and the FBI attempted to force the order. Now, the battle seems to be drawing to a tentative and uncertain close.

On March 22, there was supposed to be a court hearing that may have moved the order forward and forced Apple to comply. However, less than 24 hours before the hearing, government attorneys requested a motion to cancel the hearing.

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Ironically, the judge that approved the motion and canceled the highly controversial hearing, was also the same judge that had first served the order to Apple in the first place. The reason for the cancellation was because the FBI purported to have discovered an alternate unlocking method rendering Apple’s involvement pointless.

Very little is known about this new method, how it works or who is even providing it.

“Testing is required to determine whether it is a viable method that will not compromise the data on Farook’s iPhone. If the method is viable, it should eliminate the need for the assistance from Apple Inc.,” a lawyer for the Justice Department said in the motion.

Setting aside how the sudden appearance of the FBI’s mysterious new unlocking method is bound to raise even more questions, this is a minor victory for Apple and the security side of the debate. While the reasons for wanting a backdoor into a terrorist’s iPhone are warranted, nearly every technology and security expert argued that the dangers posed by weakening encryptions far outweighed any gains.

Apple itself was so opposed to the notion that its own encryption engineers were willing to quit their jobs, and deprive the FBI of their expertise if Apple were conscripted by the FBI to unlock the phone.

The victory is short term at best. The motion cancel to the hearing seemed more of an effort by the authorities to put a hold on an issue in which they were not in the right in the public eye. But yet another concern has come from the FBI’s new method.

“As a practical matter, if the FBI’s new technique works, it likely means that Apple will add more protection to its devices, which is a good thing for consumers and the FBI will be back in court in the future asking a judge to compel Apple to help the government defeat Apple’s improved security,” Fred Cate, a law professor at Indiana University, told Ars Technica.

For the time being, the canceled court hearing will be a small win for proponents of digital security and supporters of digital encryption. Even as authorities continue to call for weaker encryption and access to private information, more evidence builds to the contrary.

Recently, the New York Times reported that the terrorist attack in Paris last year were facilitated with the use of burner phones — cheap phones that are bought to be used for a short period or only once before being discarded. Weaker encryption would not have prevented their organization and communication since the phones were used just as phones, without email or text communications. While authorities are already rushing to blame encryption for the Brussels terrorist attack not even a day afterward, consumers can expect the security versus privacy debate to continue in spite of all evidence.