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Apple Pitches Commission to Balance Civil Liberties with National Security

A court's decision ordering Apple to develop the equivalent of a key that would unlock the encrypted data in a suspected terrorist's iPhone last week has quickly emerged as one of the most divisive issues in both the IT industry, politics and the law enforcement community to date. It has pitted civil liberties proponents against those who believe Apple and the IT community have a duty to cooperate with law enforcement in the interest of national security. Of course, it's not that simple.

Apple has until later this week to provide a response in which it has said it will vigorously defend its decision not to comply with the order given by California Federal District Court  Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym. The order said that Apple must help FBI access the contents of the iPhone of Syed Rizwan Farook, who, along with his wife Tashfeen Malik, was responsible for December's deadly attack on 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif.

FBI Director James Comey posted a statement on the agency's Web site aimed at downplaying concerns raised by privacy advocates. "The relief we seek is limited and its value increasingly obsolete because the technology continues to evolve," Comey stated. "We simply want the chance, with a search warrant, to try to guess the terrorist's passcode without the phone essentially self-destructing and without it taking a decade to guess correctly. That's it. We don't want to break anyone's encryption or set a master key loose on the land. I hope thoughtful people will take the time to understand that. Maybe the phone holds the clue to finding more terrorists. Maybe it doesn't. But we can't look the survivors in the eye, or ourselves in the mirror, if we don't follow this lead."

Apple CEO Tim Cook has doubled down today on his position, suggesting that the FBI should withdraw its demand. Instead, Cook suggested that the government should form a commission or panel of experts representing all aspects of the debate. It should consist of leading experts in intelligence, technology and civil liberties to weigh the implications of encryption on both national security and privacy, Cook said in a letter to employees this morning (acquired by BuzzFeed) and excerpted in a FAQ published on Apple's Web site.

"Our country has always been strongest when we come together," Cook wrote. "We feel the best way forward would be for the government to withdraw its demands under the All Writs Act and, as some in Congress have proposed, form a commission or other panel of experts on intelligence, technology, and civil liberties to discuss the implications for law enforcement, national security, privacy, and personal freedoms. Apple would gladly participate in such an effort."

In his FAQ this morning, Cook acknowledged that it's technologically possible to develop a way to access the encrypted information. "It is certainly possible to create an entirely new operating system to undermine our security features as the government wants. But it's something we believe is too dangerous to do. The only way to guarantee that such a powerful tool isn't abused and doesn't fall into the wrong hands is to never create it."

Indeed that is a reasonable concern, said Aneesh Chopra, who served as the first U.S. CTO under President Barack Obama from 2009 to 2012. "There is no question in my mind, we have a much bigger concern about the rogue actor threat," Chopra told CNBC. "If you think of the honeypot that would be created if they knew that such a capability was possible, this would be like a race amongst all of evil doers in the cyber security land to find out how Apple did it." Chopra said he wasn't concerned about a rogue government official accessing the capability but rather someone else. "Our law enforcement is world class and we have great confidence that they follow the rules and I believe it's a high capability there," he said. "But for the others in the system, it's just going to create a lot of havoc, and there already is pressure."

Not everyone outside of law enforcement believes Apple is acting altruistically. Among those backing government assertions that that Apple is protecting its business interests was Scott McNealy, the outspoken longtime CEO of Sun Microsystems.

"Apple's got a master stroke here," McNealy said, also speaking on CNBC this morning. "They are looking like they're for the privacy and liberties of folks, but I think they're also quite worried that any business in China is going to go away if the Chinese government think that the FBI gets a backdoor into an Apple phone that is sold in China. There's a lot of business. I know when Huawei was banned from the U.S. that created a negative backlash on the equipment providers here in the U.S. who are trying to sell into the Chinese market. So there's big economic reasons, as well as PR reasons, for what's going on here."

Among IT pros, it appears most are hoping Apple and other companies don't cave. Last week's initial report of the court's order generated numerous responses, most of whom appeared to back that premise.

"Freedom and liberty comes with costs ... and those costs mean that the government cannot step on or endanger our freedoms just so they can open one iPhone," wrote Asif Mirza. "I'm not a big fan of Apple, but I am glad they are standing their ground. I just hope it does not crumble under them."

RocRizzo added: "If Apple opens a backdoor into iOS for law enforcement, every hacker, including those in China, ISIS, will have it. Other hackers will use it to exploit users, just as they have done with the new ransomware that has been going around. It will only be a matter of hours before those who the police claim to protect us from will have the means to break into THEIR encrypted iPhones as well.  If encryption is illegal, only criminals will have encryption."

Regardless of how you feel about Apple, Microsoft and others in the IT community, the outcome of this will have a huge impact on every IT pro that manages any device and data running in the cloud.

Posted by Jeffrey Schwartz on 02/22/2016 at 12:17 PM


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