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The iPhone Blackbox

The legal battle between Apple and FBI raises questions about individual privacy and national security.

By News


illustration by Zach Cooper

illustration by Zach Cooper

“The government’s demands are chilling … We are challenging the FBI’s demands with the deepest respect for American democracy and a love of our country,” said Apple CEO Tim Cook on February 17.

On February 16, a federal court mandated that the tech giant Apple aid the FBI in unlocking the iPhone of Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the attackers from the 2015 shooting in San Bernardino, California. The very next day, in a letter addressed to the customers of Apple, Cook responded with a powerful dismissal and refusal to comply. Cook wrote, “While we believe the FBI’s intentions are good, it would be wrong for the government to force us to build a backdoor into our products. And ultimately, we fear that this demand would undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect.”

The conflict between the FBI and Apple has sparked an intense debate among politicians, technocrats in Silicon Valley, and the rest of the public. Should the government have the power to access any iPhone with a simple operating system key? Does this compromise Americans’ right to privacy, or should the government have court-permitted access to personal data for the sake of national security?

Other CEOs of Silicon Valley have been quick to defend Apple. Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai posted on Twitter that he believes “forcing companies to enable hacking could compromise users’ privacy.” Jan Koum, CEO and founder of the messaging app Whatsapp, wrote on Facebook, “We must not allow this dangerous precedent to be set. Today our freedom and our liberty is at stake.”

The iPhone has a security feature that deletes all content after 10 failed attempts to enter a passcode, and the FBI is asking Apple to develop a new feature to allow the government to access the content. This would build what Cook describes as a “backdoor” into the iPhone. The proposed software, which Cook says “does not exist today,” would allegedly allow the government to access the data on any iPhone.

“The government is asking Apple to hack our own users and undermine decades of security advancements that protect our customers — including tens of millions of American citizens — from sophisticated hackers and cybercriminals,” Cook stated.

When questioned about the controversy surrounding the Apple v. U.S. case, School of the Art Institute (SAIC) student Erin Barrett said that if the government were allowed access to iPhone data, “It would start for this cause, but then it would domino into a complete invasion of privacy. Many things could be misconstrued.”

Not everyone believes that privacy would be destroyed irreparably if the government was permitted access, and some say that it is a necessary step for national security. In a “Room for Debate” discussion in the the New York Times, The Manhattan district attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. wrote that “iPhones are the first warrant-proof consumer products in American history. They compel law enforcement to deploy extraordinarily creative prosecutorial strategies — and obtain state-of-the-art tools — to carry out even the most basic steps of a criminal investigation. I applaud our federal colleagues for their commitment to justice for the fourteen killed in San Bernardino and their families.”

The FBI and Justice Department were not pleased by Apple’s forceful reply. In a filing from the Justice Department on February 9, U.S. Attorney Eileen Decker stated, “the order … does not give the government ‘the power to reach into anyone’s device’ without a warrant or court authorization, and it does not compromise the security of personal information.”

However, the issue at hand is not quite as black-and-white as government officials and their defenders would like to portray it. According to, a San Bernardino county worker may be responsible for the legal battle occurring between Apple and the FBI. “Shortly after the phone in question was seized from an SUV belonging to Farook and his wife,” wrote Kim Zetter, “someone changed an Apple ID that might have allowed the phone to back up data to iCloud — which would have given the government a chance to seize the data with a court order.” Because of the password change by a worker of the San Bernardino county, there was no way the iPhone could have backed up additional data to iCloud.

On February 29, however, a federal judge in New York ruled in favor of Apple. Ellen Nakashima of the Washington Post reported that the judge said, “an obscure Colonial-era law did not authorize him to force the firm to lift data from an iPhone at the government’s request.”

Tim Nicodemus, a lecturer in the Painting and Drawing and Contemporary Practices departments at SAIC, agreed that this issue is much more nuanced than the opposing sides would like to portray: “My thought is that from both sides we can see kind of where we draw the line. What kind of limits should be placed on the government to keep privacy and personal security, while still maintaining national security? There is no easy yes or no.”

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