The current unrest between the FBI and Apple, Inc. surrounding the tech company’s unwillingness to generate a means to unlock the iPhone belonging to one of the suspects in the San Bernardino shooting has spurred a heated controversy pitting privacy concerns against national security interests.
The FBI believes the iPhone may contain information which could assist their investigation, while Apple is concerned that in doing so, a dangerous precedent could be set. It may not be possible for both full security and personal privacy to exist cohesively; yet, lawmakers are trying to take steps to create an even balance between stronger measures of national security, working alongside respect and organization of personal privacy measures.
A hearing was recently held by the US House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, regarding the necessity of encryption and how it can both increase security, while at the same time avoid intruding on personal liberties. While technologies exist to enhance encryption options, the government must decide if the usage of this is important, and to what extent it should be used.
“The widespread use of strong encryption has implications both for Americans’ privacy and security," said Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA). "As technology companies have made great strides to enhance the security of Americans’ personal and private information, law enforcement agencies face new challenges when attempting to access encrypted information."
Goodlatte continued, “Americans have a right to strong privacy protections and Congress should fully examine the issue to be sure those are in place while finding ways to help law enforcement fight crime and keep us safe.”
Ranking Member John Conyers (D-MI) echoed a similar sentiment. “Next week, the House Judiciary Committee will continue its examination of encryption and the questions it raises for Americans and lawmakers. As we move forward, our goal is to find a solution that allows law enforcement to effectively enforce the law without harming the competitiveness of US encryption providers or the privacy protections of US citizens.”
During the hearing, entitled “Encryption Tightrope: Balancing Americans’ Security and Privacy,” testimony was offered by a representative of the federal government’s national security force, as well as members of private industry, local government and academia. This includes the Honorable James B. Comey, Director, Federal Bureau of Investigations and Mr. Bruce Sewell, Senior Vice President and General Counsel, of Apple, Inc.
During his testimony, Comey addressed the encounters which have chipped away at the ability of national security representatives to effectively gain information and evidence, electronically, as requested via court documentation.
“In recent years, new methods of electronic communication have transformed our society, most visibly by enabling ubiquitous digital communications and facilitating broad e-commerce," said Comey. "As such, it is important for our global economy and our national security to have strong encryption standards."
“The development and robust adoption of strong encryption is a key tool to secure commerce and trade, safeguard private information, promote free expression and association, and strengthen cyber security. We are on the frontlines of the fight against cyber crime, and we know first-hand the damage that can be caused by those who exploit vulnerable and insecure systems,” he added.
Comey noted that private industry has worked diligently to create products which the public can use to safeguard their identities and personal data, while navigating and sharing information via electronic means. A person’s right to privacy is very important.
“We have always respected the fundamental right of people to engage in private communications, regardless of the medium or technology. Whether it is instant messages, texts, or old-fashioned letters, citizens have the right to communicate with one another in private without unauthorized government surveillance — not simply because the Constitution demands it, but because the free flow of information is vital to a thriving democracy,” said Comey.
In addition to protecting personal liberties, the federal government must also take measures to protect the general public, and US interests here and abroad.
Comey explained, “As national security and criminal threats continue to evolve, the Department has worked hard to stay ahead of changing threats and changing technology. We must ensure both the fundamental right of people to engage in private communications as well as the protection of the public. One of the bedrock principles upon which we rely to guide us is the principle of judicial authorization: that if an independent judge finds reason to believe that certain private communications contain evidence of a crime, then the Government can conduct a limited search for that evidence."
Comey further clarified that the federal government is not seeking to expandtheir reach, farther than is already allowed by the law. Instead, it is hoped that additional support will be given to carry out the plans and objectives already in place.
“Our country is justifiably proud of the strong privacy protections established by the Constitution and by Congress, and the FBI fully complies with those protections. The core question is this: Once all of the requirements and safeguards of the laws and the Constitution have been met, are we comfortable with technical design decisions that result in barriers to obtaining evidence of a crime?” stated Comey.
Comey concluded that while the debate on this sensitive subject matter has been challenging, it is important that it is taking place. The dialogue which has occurred is bringing light to the need for the encryption process, while still protecting personal privacy and allowing the government to gather important data they need, on a case by case basis.
Sewell began his testimony by noting that Apple does not support terrorism, or condone terrorist actions. Further,more while Apple respects the laws which are in place, current requests being made by the government are beyond the normal scope of reference, and therefore require unique attention.
“We have the utmost respect for law enforcement and share their goal of creating a safer world," said Sewell. "We have a team of dedicated professionals that are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year to assist law enforcement. When the FBI came to us in the immediate aftermath of the San Bernardino attacks, we gave all the information we had related to their investigation. And we went beyond that by making Apple engineers available to advise them on a number of additional investigative options."
Yet, Sewell continues, requests pertaining to this specific situation require unique attention and oversight. Sewell divulged that Apple has made moves to maintain their technological efforts, while also respecting the federal government, and its call for information.
“But we now find ourselves at the center of an extraordinary circumstance," said Sewell. "The FBI has asked a Court to order us to give them something we don’t have. To create an operating system that does not exist — because it would be too dangerous. They are asking for a backdoor into the iPhone — specifically to build a software tool that can break the encryption system which protects personal information on every iPhone."
Sewell continued, “As we have told them — and as we have told the American public — building that software tool would not affect just one iPhone. It would weaken the security for all of them.” He added, “The FBI is asking Apple to weaken the security of our products. Hackers and cyber criminals could use this to wreak havoc on our privacy and personal safety. It would set a dangerous precedent for government intrusion on the privacy and safety of its citizens. The only way we know to protect that data is through strong encryption.”
Sewell explained that the US government has devoted tremendous resources to funding strong encryption, and President Obama has urged the government to fully support commercial software.
Encryption is something that Apple stands by, and has worked for years to refine and make suitable for today’s standards, with increasing attacks and advancements to ward off hackers and those hoping to breach the system.
“As attacks on our customers’ data become increasingly sophisticated, the tools we use to defend against them must get stronger too," said Sewell. "Weakening encryption will only hurt consumers and other well-meaning users who rely on companies like Apple to protect their personal information."
Sewell reaffirmed that Apple will continue to use encryption to enhance their security efforts, and to keep their customers and the data they share, safe and secure.
“Protecting our data with encryption and other methods preserves our privacy and it keeps people safe," Sewell concluded. "The American people deserve an honest conversation around the important questions stemming from the FBI’s current demand,” Sewell shared. “We feel strongly that our customers, their families, their friends and their neighbors will be better protected from thieves and terrorists if we can offer the very best protections for their data. And at the same time, the freedoms and liberties we all cherish will be more secure."
Homeland Security Today recently reported on the division between the FBI and Apple, and that due to a virtual stalemate, Congress has introduced an encryption bill, meant to generate a national committee on digital security. With such a body in place, it is hoped for greater clarity in the future, so that common ground can be sought more quickly, with clearly defined boundaries and guidelines, which are up to date, accurate, and allow for progress for all involved.