Would a less secure iPhone OS really be ‘bad for America’, or just bad for Apple?

PCR editor Dominic Sacco shares his views on the high-profile battle between the FBI and Apple.

Yesterday, Tim Cook told ABC News that the protection of people’s data is incredibly important.

"So the trade off here is, we know that doing this could expose people to incredible vulnerabilities. This is not something we would create. This would be bad for America," he said.

But would it really be bad for America, or just bad for Apple?

I’d say the latter, and my view is that Tim Cook is tapping into the hearts and minds of those who are fierce defenders of personal data, in order to get them on Apple’s side and vilify the FBI.

It’s more of a PR battle than anything else, in my opinion.

Last week, the FBI approached Apple to help it gain access to an iPhone 5C that was owned by Syed Rizwan Farook, a terrorist involved in the San Bernardino attack in December 2015 who was shot dead by police.

While it seems bizarre the FBI is unable to gain access to a smartphone that has been on the market for several years now, it claims it needs Apple’s help to get into the terrorist’s phone in order for it to trawl data and other clues.

If an incorrect password is entered into an iPhone too many times, the phone will be locked. The only way to access it at that point is to restore its factory settings, which deletes all data stored on the device at the same time.

Thus, the FBI is ordering Apple to create a new less secure type of operating system, which will allow the FBI to enter the passcode as many times as it likes without erasing the device’s data.

Apple is refusing to do this, citing the ‘threat to data security’ and describing the US Government’s actions as ‘chilling’. It is fighting the court order and has until Friday to respond. You can check out its full letter to its customers here.

The FBI have since attacked Apple, saying the firm is more concerned with its business model and marketing strategy than dealing with terror.

While I don’t agree with that viewpoint to the letter, I can’t help but feel Apple is thinking of itself and the potential implications of a less secure OS getting out into the public.

Imagine the scenario: iPhone thieves with software like this would gain instant access to all of the stolen iPhone’s data. Identity theft, monetary theft and phone theft would increase dramatically. And Apple’s reputation would be seriously harmed in the process.

That could be partly why Apple is refusing to meet the US Government’s demands. By attacking the FBI, Apple is making this case about personal rights and personal data, and not about Apple or the idea of hack-able iPhones.

"The only way to get information – at least currently, the only way we know – would be to write a piece of software that we view as sort of the equivalent of cancer," Tim Cook said.

"We think it’s bad news to write. We would never write it. We have never written it – and that is what is at stake here. We believe that is a very dangerous operating system."

It would certainly be bad news for Apple to read, too. What would you choose – a dangerous operating system or allowing dangerous terrorists to get away with keeping their potentially dangerous data secure? 

"If a court can ask us to write this piece of software, think about what else they could ask us to write – maybe it’s an operating system for surveillance, maybe the ability for the law enforcement to turn on the camera," Cook added. "I don’t know where this stops. But I do know that this is not what should be happening in this country.

"This case is not about one phone. This case is about the future. … If we knew a way to get the information on the phone that would not expose hundreds of millions of other people to issues, we would obviously do it. Our job is to protect our customers."

It’s also your job to protect your company, Tim. What’s more important to you?

From the years I’ve spent writing about tech companies and business, I know the lengths CEOs and firms will take to protect their business. 

I’m not saying Cook is in the wrong or that a person’s privacy isn’t important. Like Cook said: "Some things are hard and some things are right, and some things are both. This is one of those things."

What I’m saying is it’s also in his interest to ensure Apple doesn’t become a scapegoat in this situation. By making enemies with the FBI, he is at the same time making friends with many smartphone owners and customers. Customers that make Apple billions of pounds every quarter.

Image source: Smartphone data theft (Shutterstock)

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