In a time when the boundaries of privacy are becoming unclear in technology, the verdicts from the ongoing battle between Apple and the FBI over a terrorist’s locked iPhone will change the field of encryption. A key player in this field is Prof. Stephen Wicker, electrical and computer engineering, who has spoken to Congress and the White House about privacy in today’s world. In this fight, he believes that Apple is correct.
On Dec. 5, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik shot and killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California, before being killed themselves in the ensuing shootout with law enforcement. The FBI is now in possession of one of the shooter’s iPhones and believes unlocking it could offer valuable information about the case.
When a certain security preference is set and a wrong passcode is entered 10 times in a row, all of the data on the phone is erased. The FBI is looking to Apple for to overcome this challenge and gain access to the phone’s data.
“What the FBI is asking Apple to do is to create an operating system that can be used on a particular iPhone that will bypass that iPhone’s security features,” Wicker said.
Apple CEO Tim Cook refused to do so on the grounds that the privacy of all iPhone users would be threatened, according to an Apple customer letter. Wicker believes that this refusal is an important moral stance that will protect the rights of smartphone users.
“Smartphones are the personal papers of the 21st century, and cryptography the primary means of keeping our data to ourselves,” Wicker said in a University press release.
If an operating system that can bypass iPhone security features is created and released to the FBI, the security of all iPhones is weakened and dangerous possibilities arise, according to Wicker.
“Even if the software is locked to a particular phone, Apple and most computer scientists can’t be sure that the software will stay locked to that particular phone,” Wicker said. “They can’t be sure that the FBI won’t misplace it, it won’t be misused… and let’s not forget that the government itself has been hacked.”
On Feb. 16, a California court ruled that Apple must comply with the FBI’s request. The ruling cited the All Writs Act, which according to Wicker is a two-sentence statute that dates back to the Judiciary Act of 1789. He is not convinced that the statute justifies the court’s decision.
“If you read the actual words [of the statute], they’re extraordinarily vague,” Wicker said. “And in a case in the late 1800s, a court said that the collection of personal papers is essentially equivalent to forcing an individual to incriminate themselves. No one would have thought that the All Writs Act could have been used to force someone to reveal their private papers.”
Despite his disagreement with this court ruling and with the FBI, Wicker has great respect for prosecutors. He said he understands that the agency needs to access every piece of evidence that it can, as long as they respect the lines of privacy that are drawn by the law.
“I think prosecutors are wonderful people,” Wicker said. “They do a phenomenal job. We have a great justice system, in part because we have prosecutors who work really hard.”
Wicker also understands why some people might feel as though the FBI is justified, especially if breaking into the phone could help prevent future attacks. He is not convinced, however, that the public grasps the magnitude of what is being asked of Apple.
“I don’t think there’s a general understanding of what’s been asked for, of the nature of cryptography, of the nature of the operating system and how operating systems can be easily replicated and distributed,” Wicker said.