Lots of people were happy to hear about Apple’s latest announcement regarding privacy and security on their devices. The latest generation of iPhones and other devices running iOS 8 features stronger encryption methods to ensure the security of users’ personal data. James Comey, the Director of the FBI, was not among those praising the Cupertino giant.
In a briefing for the press last week, the FBI head took a hard stance against the very idea of hardened security for mobile phones. Comey went as far as to call Apple “unpatriotic”, saying that he was concerned about companies “marketing something expressly to allow people to place themselves beyond the law.”
Apple Can’t Unlock iOS Devices, Even For The FBI
What he was referring to is the current form of encryption built into iOS, which makes it no longer feasible for the manufacturer to bypass users’ passwords. So, even under order from the FBI or other law enforcement agencies, Apple will not be able to provide access to users’ data.
The stories of the leaked photos flooded the media at an rather awkward moment: right before the release of iPhone 6. While I don’t think that there was much short of a natural disaster that would have deterred dedicated iPhone fans from lining up to get the new phone on its release date, the photo leaks certainly didn’t help matters. So the promise of respect for its users’ privacy and no backdoors in any of its products was certainly good PR.
What Really Irked The FBI?
Users are assured that “On devices running iOS 8, your personal data such as photos, messages (including attachments), email, contacts, call history, iTunes content, notes, and reminders is placed under the protection of your passcode. Unlike our competitors, Apple cannot bypass your passcode and therefore cannot access this data.”
They further boast that less than 0.00385% of their customers had data disclosed in response to government information requests.
Google Is In The Hotseat Too
It’s not just the phones with a fruit logo that have the FBI up in arms. Google has also announced similarly strengthened security in the latest version of their Android OS, currently code-named “Android L”. This will be an automatic form of encryption, which again, the company will not be able to unlock.
The FBI statement equally rebuked Google, saying, “Google is marketing their Android the same way: Buy our phone and law-enforcement, even with legal process, can never get access to it”.
FBI Vs. The Law
It looks to me like Comey and the FBI are treading on some very sensitive ground with this issue. As a long-time advocate of privacy, I’m immediately suspect when I hear a government official expressing an opinion which seems to clearly violate the Constitution. The Fourth Amendment should give assurance that privacy is a fundamental right, and one of the essential liberties that we’re guaranteed as Americans.
So I have to question Comey’s sincerity when he accuses Silicon Valley companies like Apple and Google of furthering their own business goals by obstructing investigations of kidnappings, for example. Apple’s own statement makes it quite clear that, “Our legal team carefully reviews each request, ensuring it is accompanied by valid legal process. All content requests require a search warrant. If we are legally compelled to divulge any information and it is not counterproductive to the facts of the case, we provide notice to the customer when allowed and deliver the narrowest set of information possible in response”.
Google’s Executive Chairman, Eric Schmidt expressed similar doubt in responding to the attack from the FBI. He commented that the FBI and other agencies have a legal process to follow, and that Google, like Apple, reviews each request on on its own merits to be certain that these come through proper legal channels and are within the law.
A Poor Choice Of Words
I think that Comey made a poor choice when he played the “beyond the law” card. I can’t see FBI winning much public support this way, when they’re trying to advocate what amounts to rampant spying on its citizens. Most of us are aware that the FBI and other government agencies have been eavesdropping on our calls, emails, and text messages for years. Isn’t that also acting like they’re “beyond the law”?
What do you think about this? There are some big questions here. Is the FBI just feeling frustrated because the technology now exists to thwart their efforts to violate our privacy? Has all of this surveillance of everyone actually accomplished anything? Or has it actually been shown to be ineffective in catching and stopping people like the Boston Marathon bomber?
Do you agree with Comey’s assessment? Or are you happy to see big players like Apple and Google fighting back against excessive government invasions into our privacy?
Sound off in the comments section below.