Apple’s Secret Sauce and the Value of Privacy

It’s 2016 and privacy is a pipedream. Personal lives are plastered over social media. Street corners are plagued with cameras. Confidential information is no longer padlocked in the dusty file cabinet in the basement.

Instead, we carry the weight of that file cabinet in a condensed, rectangular form—our phones are our diaries, scrapbooks and banks. They are the final step in what appears to be the extinction of privacy—which may explain why the concluded dispute between Apple and the Federal Bureau of Investigation has drawn so much interest.

The clash began with a shooting on Dec. 1, 2015. Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik killed 14 individuals at a social services facility in San Bernardino, Calif. Authorities obtained the iPhone of the now deceased Farook and the FBI believes that this specific phone contains potentially crucial information to help in the fight against terrorism. The only problem was—the FBI couldn’t get in.

“So normally, what the government would do is hook up a computer that rapidly does a bunch of passcodes just by brute force. And because it’s a computer and it does it gazillions of times, then ultimately it’s going to hit the right one and then they go in,” said Seattle University law professor and criminal defense attorney Michael Russo.

But the problem was, with newer operating systems, if 10 incorrect passcode attempts are made, the phone is wiped clean. To avoid this, the FBI wanted the court to order Apple to create a “backdoor” of sorts in which Apple disables the 10-incorrect- passcode function on only the San Bernardino shooter’s phone.

And Apple’s response? A definite no. The company argued that this one breach could potentially open a Pandora’s Box, enabling hackers to learn how to recreate that same backdoor, thus defeating the security of all iPhones.
FBI were scheduled to meet in court, a third party stepped forward claiming that they could unlock the phone for the FBI without Apple’s help.

“There’s a company called Cellebrite that builds this machine that law enforcement has used for a long time that allows them to go into computers when they do a search of a hard drive. It downloads all of the data, makes a copy essentially,” Russo said.

While it hasn’t been confirmed, Cellebrite is the alleged third party. And on March 28, the FBI revealed that they successfully unlocked the San Bernardino shooter’s phone through an alternative method. As a result, the case between Apple and the FBI has ended.

But the FBI’s ability to unlock a phone without the help of Apple raises new questions about how secure our phones really are. And in light of instances like the recent bombings in Brussels, Istanbul, and elsewhere, the debate of collective security versus individual privacy is becoming increasingly pertinent.

“And the problem here is that terrorism has created an enormous amount of justifiable fear. But also huge challenges because terrorists these days are very sophisticated in terms of their use of phones, and other things. Social media, stuff like that, encryption, you know, that’s out there. And our laws clearly haven’t kept up,” Russo said.

According to Russo, people are justifiably worried about their privacy. “I think it comes from just a very rational fear that we no longer keep our most private items in our homes locked in somewhere. It’s out there. And it’s easy enough for people to listen,” Russo said.

The FBI’s ability to successfully unlock Farook’s iPhone not only raises concerns about the security of our phones, but it may also shed light on how vulnerable our individual, private information really is.

“I don’t really like to have people look at my phone. There’s only a couple people, maybe one person that knows my password. It’s just a personal thing I think. Everything is on the iPhone,” said sophomore nursing major Brittany Duronslet.

Duronslet elaborated on financial information stored in banking apps like Chase, as well as the popular Venmo, which allows individuals to transfer money between bank accounts via their smartphones.

And while it is evident that our phones do store personal information, some students are less concerned about their privacy. According to Humanities for Leadership sophomore and iPhone user McKenzi Bravo, a lack of privacy is just part of living in the 21st century.

“There’s very, very, very limited privacy already at this point and I feel like if I had anything to hide, it couldalready be found regardless or not of whether they had access to my phone,” Bravo said.

Executive Director of Seattle University’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center Sue Oliver said that while Apple may truly care about protecting the privacy of their customers, they are still a business in an extremely competitive marketplace. Losing their default encryption would threaten Apple’s “x-factor” that separates them from the rest of the herd.

“And so to me, there’s also an element of that ‘secret sauce,’ that differentiator being destroyed if they did have to create [a backdoor], even though it’s just for one phone,” Oliver said.

As the dispute between Apple and the FBI concludes, the conflict between security and privacy will continue to cause tension. And according to Russo, “It is important to find out where we stand.”

Tess may be reached at triski@su-spectator.com

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  • Bert Knabe

    I have to question the statement that terrorists are very sophisticated in their use of encryption. I can’t think of a recent attack where the perpetrators used encrypted communications. The claim was initially made by law enforcement after the Paris attacks, but it was soon discovered that no encryption had been used by the terrorists.