Analysis Public opinion over the judicial demand that Apple create a version of its mobile operating system for the FBI – dubbed FBiOS – appears to have landed firmly against the Feds.
The FBI has demanded Apple assist it in breaking into the mobile phone of San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook who, along with his wife, killed 14 people in December. Agents are investigating the pair for possible terrorist links.
The Feds clearly felt that the case represented an ideal opportunity to assert its authority over Apple.
But an open letter from Apple CEO Tim Cook in which he made it clear the company would resist what it feels is "overreach by the US government," appears to have turned public opinion in favor of Apple's stance.
Initial reaction was mixed – with privacy advocates and Edward Snowden predictably coming out in favor and Donald Trump and right-wing Republican senators coming out against.
But with the full details and implications now more carefully considered 24 hours later, it appears that most agree with Cook that the US government ordering a company to create a product solely to break its own security is a step too far.
"We can find no precedent for an American company being forced to expose its customers to a greater risk of attack," said Cook. Google's CEO Sundar Pichai agreed, saying in a series of tweets: "We build secure products to keep your information safe and we give law enforcement access to data based on valid legal orders. But that's wholly different than requiring companies to enable hacking of customer devices & data. Could be a troubling precedent."
Other tech companies stood by Cook's position as well. WhatsApp head Jan Koum also referenced the "dangerous precedent" that could be set and noted that "our freedom and our liberty is at stake." Mozilla's executive director Mark Surman said much the same. Other companies that have made their support public include anonymizing browsers DuckDuckGo and the Tor Project, as well as password software company 1Password.
Internet organizations have also come out in support.
The Reform Government Surveillance coalition, which includes Dropbox, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo published a statement in support. "Technology companies should not be required to build in backdoors to the technologies that keep their users' information secure," it stated.
The Internet Society also came out against the Fed's plan, noting: "We do not believe backdoors – in any guise – will help bring about a more trusted Internet." And the Internet Infrastructure Coalition noted that the industry "cannot support a government mandate to weaken security standards."
We have yet to find a single tech company or executive that has provided anything but support – with even Blackberry's CEO John Chen refusing to comment. Chen notably criticized Cook last year for the "disdain" he had shown law enforcement when he refused to unlock a different iPhone. Chen argued that a "proper balance can be struck." Faced with what the Feds clearly felt was a proper balance, however, Chen has been silent.
That's the tech industry. What about the politicians?
In its first reaction, the White House emphasized that the access requested by the FBI was for "just one device" and it seems that was the line that the FBI and the political establishment was planning on pushing.
It is indeed true that what the FBI has asked for – and quite deliberately – would only work with the single phone in question due to the phone's own unique ID. Except, if Apple accepts the legal precedent that the FBI can oblige it to create a new product solely to break its own security, it would of course apply to all devices, one at a time.
Despite one Congressman, Tom Cotton, implying that Apple is on the side of terrorist and child abusers, however, the political tide may have turned against the Feds.
A number of Congress critters from both sides of the aisle have come out strongly in favor of Apple's position.
"Govt's demand that Apple undermine safety & privacy of all its customers is unconscionable & unconstitutional," tweeted Republican Justin Amash. Democrat Ron Wyden posted: "FBI request to Apple is bad for Americans' online safety & security, could empower repressive regimes #NoBackdoors."
Democrat Zoe Lofgren put out a statement making the same point as everyone else: "The order that Apple create a new operating system with a back door, using the 18th Century 'All Writs Act,' is an astonishing overreach of authority by the Federal government."
Lofgren also threatened to use political power against the FBI's legal efforts when she stated "I urge the judicial branch to swiftly overturn this misguided ruling and further urge the Director of the FBI to refrain from seeking public policy decisions from the courts that are more properly decided by the Legislative branch of government."
It is far from universal however, with Republican Richard Burr writing an op-ed in USA Today titled "Apple should not be above the law."
As for broader public opinion, that is of course hard to tell, but based on the seemingly endless stream of tweets on the topic, the tide does not appear to have turned from the very pro-Apple comments yesterday.
It also appears that people are taking the situation seriously enough to find out and understand the finer points of the situation: something that happens all too rarely.
The FBI was careful not to ask that Apple bypass its encryption, asserting only that it is asking the company to unlock Farook's iPhone 5C.
But what it is asking is that Apple create a version of its operating system solely to unlock the phone. And while the FBI clearly felt this was a smart way to get around the toxic "backdoor" argument, it clearly didn't reckon on the fact that the American people have a hard time with the US government demanding that someone create something just for them that goes against your own beliefs and interests.
As iPhone forensic expert Jonathan Zdziarski put it in a blog post: "Not only is Apple being ordered to compromise their own devices; they're being ordered to give that golden key to the government, in a very roundabout sneaky way.
"What the FBI has requested will inevitably force Apple's methods out into the open, where they can be ingested by government agencies looking to do the same thing. They will also be exposed to private forensics companies, who are notorious for reverse engineering and stealing other people's intellectual property. Should Apple comply in providing a tool, it will inevitably end up abused and in the wrong hands."
The irony, Zdziarski also notes, is that there is some reason to believe that there is nothing of value on the phone of Syed Farook anyway. ®