EDITORIAL: Apple Bites Back
On February 16, Apple CEO Tim Cook posted a “Customer Letter” on the homepage of the technology giant’s website. The letter, which quickly took over Tam students’ Facebook feeds, outlined Apple’s response to an FBI request for the company to create a “backdoor” to Apple iPhones in order to help investigate the contents of an iPhone used by one of the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks in San Bernardino on December 2.
The FBI’s request asked Apple to design a system that could override the encryption platform that leads iPhones to be wiped clean after ten incorrect passcode attempts. “Specifically, the FBI wants us to make a new version of the iPhone operating system, circumventing several important security features, and install it on an iPhone recovered during the investigation,” the letter read. “In the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession.”
The letter enumerates that although the FBI requested the system specifically for use on the phone owned by the San Bernardino shooter, the creation of a “backdoor” system would create a legal precedent that would open the door to the government accessing users’ information in cases less-pertinent to national security. Apple refused the government’s request to create such a system. “The government suggests this tool could only be used once, on one phone,” Cook said in the letter. “But that’s simply not true. Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices. In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks — from restaurants and banks to stores and homes.”
Our staff discussed the societal implications of the creation of such a service, and, as journalism students, we agreed that the repercussions of such a legal precedent on the world inhabited by journalists would be severe and detrimental. If the government suddenly has greater legal authority to access the private information encrypted within citizens’ smartphones, sources might be reluctant to share even remotely sensitive or controversial information with journalists if someone else were able to access that information whenever they wanted.
Journalists often interview their sources confidentially, which simultaneously allows them to utilize controversial information in pertinent stories and preserves the safety of the sources who divulge this information. When a source provides a journalist with sensitive information under the premise that they are doing so confidentially, he or she strikes a deal with the reporter that their identity will not be made known to anyone besides the reporter or reporters writing the story at hand.
If government agents were suddenly able to hack iPhones and access information obtained by journalists confidentially, sources who might be in danger if their identities were discovered would no longer be willing to share their stories. As a result, journalists such as Woodward and Bernstein and members of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team would not have been able to break the stories that revealed president Richard Nixon’s corruption and the culture of pedophilia that has plagued the Catholic church for decades.
As journalists, we are fearful of the possibility of living in a society in which government’s ability to examine our private data might lead to the suppression of socially pertinent stories such as the ones mentioned above. For centuries, journalists have exposed controversial stories that educate citizens about the injustices present in our society. If the government is able to acquire the backdoor system from Apple, a dangerous precedent might be set that could compromise journalists’ ability to do this.