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End of Apple-FBI Case Stirs up New Controversy over Data Privacy

Last week, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) managed to successfully unlock the iPhone of Sayed Farook, one of the shooters involved in the December 2015 San Bernardino attacks—without Apple’s involvement. And while the battle between Apple and the FBI may be over, the war over data privacy has only just begun.

The Apple-FBI encryption battle has sparked a heated debate over how the US government can access encrypted data without endangering the privacy rights of the American people.

“It is certainly good news that the government has been able to unlock Sayed Farook’s phone in order to access information that may be useful to the FBI’s investigation,” House Committee on Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) commented. “The events in San Bernardino were heinous, and we must do everything we can to protect against this kind of violence. It is paramount that we uncover whether Farook and his wife were acting alone, or whether they were part of a broader terrorist network.”

McCaul added, “The government’s decision to drop its case against Apple, however, does not mean that America is ready to turn the page on this serious issue. The question of ‘security versus security’ remains front and center, and the settling of this one case does not dispose of it. With another similar case still pending in the Eastern District of New York—and countless other cases undoubtedly yet to come—it is imperative that we get ahead of the curve."

McCaul foresees countless similar cases concerning data privacy arising in the future. In response, he and Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) have introduced legislation to create a national commission on digital security, which would bring together experts to discuss the implications of the current encryption debate.

Although the FBI has dropped its case against Apple, many lingering questions remain. For weeks, Apple refused to cooperate with the FBI’s investigation, but the tables recently turned after the FBI announced that it had successfully unlocked the iPhone. The FBI has yet to reveal to the tech firm just how it was able to hack into the encrypted device.

However, there are a few clues.

The Associated Press received a tip from a senior law enforcement official that the FBI somehow defeated an Apple security feature that would delete thedevice’s contents after ten failed passcode attempts. This provided the FBI with the opportunity to repeatedly and continuously test various passcodes in what is known as a brute-force attack. This process continues until the right code is entered and the phone is unlocked. According to FBI Director James Comey, the FBI was able to hack the phone after only 26 minutes.

However, the FBI’s refusal to divulge how they hacked the iPhone is against government practice and protocol. There are nearly two decades of precedence where security researchers work confidentially in cooperation with software manufacturers when they uncover that a product is somehow susceptible to hackers.

There is speculation that the FBI remains secretive because the method used to hack Farook’s iPhone 5s might work on other generations of iPhones. Some argue that the FBI’s refusal to cooperate with Apple is revenge for Apple’s adamant refusal to cooperate earlier.  

However, Comey commented, ""The San Bernardino litigation isn’t about trying to set a precedent or send any kind of message. It is about the victims and justice. Fourteen people were slaughtered and many more had their lives and bodies ruined. We owe them a thorough and professional investigation under law. That’s what this is. The American people should expect nothing less from the FBI."

The US is at a pivotal moment in data privacy history. The government has gained the tools necessary to unlock encrypted devices in the name of national security, but in so doing, may be jeopardizing their relationship and credibility with Silicon Valley and with the public. A technology firm that feels threatened but remains unrestricted in its capabilitiescould become the government’s new enemy as they work to make their security systems more impenetrable.

Now is the time for the US government to decide how it will handle the digital security challenge.

Homeland Security Todayhttp://www.hstoday.us
The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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