All your data belongs to US

Published: March 31, 2016 - 18:08 Updated: December 30, 2017 - 15:09

With Apple taking a tough stance, and the FBI adamant, the massacre at San Bernardino in California has yet again re-opened the debate on national security and the right to privacy
Abeer Kapoor Delhi

Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik died in a shootout four hours after they opened fire at a training workshop of the County Public Health Department in San Bernardino, California. They had murdered 14 people and injured 22 of the 80 that sat in attendance. As they fled in a black Lexus SUV to certain death, they would have been unaware that their iPhone would occupy centre stage in the raging debate on the right to privacy. 

In the aftermath of the mass shooting, as the country recovered from the horror of the massacre, President Barack Obama declared the December 2 carnage as an act of terror. The Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) immediately launched a counter-terrorism investigation. As they established the couple’s links to various extremist cells and found that it was the internet that had led to their radicalisation, the iPhone belonging to Farook posed an obstacle to the investigators. It was an official phone belonging to the San Bernardino Health Department, where Farook worked. The rights of accessing the phone were transferred to the FBI, but, subsequently, there emerged a problem, the phone was encrypted: it was locked. 

Passkeys and passwords help protect us from hackers, conmen and thieves. They also protect us from the government, ensuring that our data is our own and no one else’s. There is always an option to secure our data, and in most cases it is strongly recommended to do so. Farook did exactly that: he protected his data. 

Apple Inc, the manufacturer of the iPhone, offers encryption on each of the devices that it designs. There are two layers of protection, what Apple calls the security enclave, a mix of both software and hardware security that protects the data of the user through encryption, and a built-in kill switch: If the passkey is entered incorrectly ten times the data in the phone would be lost. In a senate hearing, FBI Director James Comey told a Senate panel that the bureau was still unable to unlock the phone. The encryption measures installed by Apple (the kill switch), according to him, were a major hurdle in the government’s investigation. 

The DOJ and the FBI approached the courts and this is where things get murky. 

 “We should decide as a nation how much control the government has over our data.” Through his uncompromising stance on privacy, Cook has
assumed cult status in Silicon Valley, 
the face of the fight against the government’s bully 


It is no secret that everybody wants data. It is what businesses are built upon. Big data helps in security, development, business and any other activity that people want to do. Tech companies possess troves of data, which the government has their eyes on. Silicon Valley has been fighting for more stringent privacy and security laws, while the government wants to weaken these very same laws to gain access to that data pie. In June 2015, Information Technology Industry Council (ITI) and the Software & Information Industry Association petitioned Obama to “not to pursue any policy or proposal that would require or encourage companies to weaken these technologies, including the weakening of encryption or creating encryption ‘work-arounds”. 

On February 16, Sheri Pym, a district judge in California, ordered Apple to assist the FBI by creating a software bundle that would enable the bureau to hack into the iPhone. It is important to understand that the court has asked the tech giant to comply not through a summon but under the All Writ Act of 1789. This sets a precedent for other companies in the future to be called upon and asked to give up their technology secrets. 

The FBI asked Apple to create a backdoor that can only be used for Farook’s phone. The DOJ has claimed that it is only Apple that has the technical means to open the device. Now, backed by the order, they are strong-arming the company to do their bidding. The company has outrightly refused to do so, saying that if they were to do something like this it would be applicable on all phones produced by them. The company says that if they do create this access key it will not only be for one phone, but could be used for all phones. This means, under the direction of the courts and the authorities, the company would end up sabotaging its own products. 

Many blogs, websites and Internet activists through out the world have debunked the supposed helplessness of the government. Most notably, Edward Snowden speaking via video link at an event has slammed the claim of the DOJ saying it is only Apple that can unlock the phone. He said that this claim is patently false or in his words, “Respectfully, it is bullshit.” He says that there are several technologies that are available with the FBI and the NSA, who have been curiously missing from the case, which can unlock the phone. 


Tim Cook, CEO, Apple, took stage at the Apple Event on March 21, 2016. He didn’t waste any time in addressing the reason why the company had chosen to host the event, “We should decide as a nation how much control the government has over our data.” Through his uncompromising stance on privacy, Cook has assumed cult status in Silicon Valley, becoming the face of the fight against the government’s bully tactics.  

The last month has been trying for Apple. After the order to comply, Cook, wrote an online letter to customers of the company. He detailed how the smart phone has become an essential part of everyday life and how all sorts of personal data is stored on these devices, and when the government asks for the company to build a backdoor to bypass encryption, it just can’t comply.  

The growing support from other tech companies such as their archrival, Microsoft and Google, has bolstered Apple’s effort to take on the government. Apple has sent a legal brief to the DOJ detailing how they are not constrained to help the government. This case, which has caught the attention of the world, came to an abrupt stop on the morning of March 22, 2016. The DOJ announced that they did not need the help of Apple anymore and had found ‘someone’ with the competence to unlock the iPhone in question. Many have speculated that it is the NSA which was behind this, while others say it is a security company in Israel which has come forward to help the US government.

Late night on March 28, 2016, Melanie Newman, spokesperson of the DOJ, said that the phone was unlocked and the data has been recovered. In a press release the government promptly sounded the bugle of victory. “The government has now successfully accessed the data stored on Farook’s iPhone and therefore no longer requires the assistance from Apple Inc. mandated by the Court’s Order Compelling Apple Inc. to Assist Agents in Search dated February 16, 2016.

Apple has been lauded for its resistance to the demands of the government, but this is just the beginning, according to many. The fears that were brought out by Snowden and Wikileaks make most wary of the extent to which the government can push its agenda in the name of security and how populations in fear of an external threat are willing to forego their fundamental rights. 

Abeer Kapoor is a reporter, data visualiser and his interests are agrarian issues, politics and foreign policy. He has a masters in development studies and loves food

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This story is from print issue of HardNews