Security

Apple rivals line up behind Cook and company against the US government

Apple recently filed a motion opposing the DOJ's order to unlock the iPhone of a suspected terrorist. Now, its biggest rivals are showing their support in Apple's fight against the government.

Image: James Martin/CNET

On Thursday, Apple officially filed a motion to vacate a court order prompting the company to unlock the iPhone 5c belonging to suspected San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook. Now, some of Apple's biggest tech rivals are planning to support the company's crusade for privacy and security.

According to the Wall Street Journal, which cited "people familiar with the matter," Facebook, Microsoft, Google's parent company Alphabet, and possibly Twitter, are planning on filing a joint motion in support of Apple. If the motion is indeed filed, the support of these tech giants will further complicate an already intricate and novel case.

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Forrester analyst Jeff Pollard said that this joint action by these tech companies shows that they see danger in the potential precedent this would set, and they are willing to stand against the government on this issue.

"None of them want to be the company that further erodes the privacy of their users in light of potential government overreach," Pollard said. "With privacy's importance growing in the eyes of consumers, tech companies that capitalize on the collection and use of consumer data see a threat in forced government coercion like this legally and financially."

For those unfamiliar, this case began when Apple was ordered by a federal judge to help the FBI "break-in" to a locked iPhone that belonged to one of the perpetrators in the December 2015 San Bernardino shooting. Essentially, Apple was asked to create a custom OS that bypasses many of the security features present in iOS. FBI Director James Comey said Apple was ordered to do two things: Disable the delay between tries for cracking a passcode, and delay the auto-erase function on the iPhone.

SEE: Information security policy template (Tech Pro Research)

Apple refused the order, saying that it would be a slippery slope that could lead to further violations of privacy in the future. Tim Cook penned the following, official statement on the Apple website as an initial response to the order:

"The United States government has demanded that Apple take an unprecedented step which threatens the security of our customers. We oppose this order, which has implications far beyond the legal case at hand."

The case is complicated because it brings up hard questions about personal expectations of privacy and security relative to serious investigations. In fact, Comey said the question of encryption is "the hardest question I've seen in government."

Gartner analyst Avivah Litan said that, beyond the precedent it would set for the security of technology products, this case is further complicated by that fact that the U.S. government doesn't seem to have irrefutable evidence that unlocking this particular iPhone is necessary to the investigation.

"There is no reason to believe that anything important to the case will show up on that iPhone. The terrorists purposefully destroyed two of their phones before the attack," Litan said. "There is good reason to believe that those are the phones that would help investigators find their collaborators or commanders. So this particular case against Apple constitutes 'strong-arming' the company's employees in a seeming-violation of the U.S. constitution."

And, while it is becoming more clear that Silicon Valley's biggest companies stand with Apple, most U.S. citizens are much more divided.

SEE: Apple's FBI standoff: Why it's a lot bigger than breaking into one device (TechRepublic)

According to a recent survey conducted by Washington DC's Vrge, half of respondents said that Apple should comply with the order, 30% said they should continue to refuse, and the remaining 20% just weren't sure. However, when the questions were focused more on personal data, 45% fewer people said Apple should comply and more respondents said that they should continue to refuse.

The numbers for Pew Research's survey on the same topic were similar. In its research, Pew found that 51% of people believe Apple should unlock the phone, 38% believe Apple should not unlock the phone, and 11% said that they just don't know.

Additionally, questions have been raised over just whose fault it is that the data cannot be accessed. Farook was a San Bernardino County employee, and the County typically deploys MDM software from MobileIron, but they had failed to do so in the case of Farook. If the software had been installed, however, a MobileIron executive said that the phone could have been unlocked.

Regardless of public opinion, or fault, if the U.S. government does win the case, Litan said it will have far-reaching implication for technology suppliers, producers, and users.

"It means that the security of any given US-made product is only as secure as the U.S. government wants it to be," Litan said.

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. Apple officially filed a motion to dismiss an order to unlock an iPhone owned by San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook. Facebook, Microsoft, and Google are planning on filing a joint motion in support of Apple's stance against the government.
  2. If the US government wins the case, it could provide the government with useful information in their investigation, but it also could start a slippery slope that compromises the privacy of all smartphone users in the US. Americans are still divided on which party they support, but their beliefs change when dealing with personal data.
  3. It's possible that the whole case could have been avoided if Farook's employer, San Bernardino County, had followed IT protocol and installed the MDM software on his device. IT leaders should use this opportunity to consider their own mobile security and policies, and determine if best practices are being followed.

Who do you side with?

Is Apple in the right, or do you agree with the US government? Tell us why in the comments.

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About

Conner Forrest is News Editor for TechRepublic. He covers startups and enterprise technology and is passionate about the convergence of tech and culture.

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