Apple vs the FBI: Why Tim Cook is right


Nice to see someone in business taking a principled stance on a basic issue of individual liberty. Apple boss Tim Cook is standing up against US government officials' attempts to ride roughshod over the public's right to privacy. Apple is opposing the US Department of Justice in at least ten cases. The FBI wants them to help to hack the iPhones of known or suspected criminals, while the DoJ wants Apple to create a 'master key' on its devices so that such hacking can become routine.

Apple has been fighting a legal (and PR) battle over the iPhone of Syed Farook, who gunned down 14 people in San Bernadino three months ago. The FBI argue that the information on Farook's phone may help prevent another such act of terrorism. Cook argues that the very real dangers of compromising Apple encryption – which could expose people to criminal, as well as government, assaults on their data – outweigh the possibility that something "might be there".

The US government's efforts to enable themselves to conveniently hack whosoever they deem fit start, as usual, with cases like this. Nearly everyone would say that murdering swine like Farook should have no secrets from the police, especially if other lives might be at risk. But even universal agreement does not necessarily make it right.

Once such a principle is conceded, there is no obvious limit to the assault on justice. Exactly what crime does someone have to commit – or merely be suspected of – before the police can legitimately hack their data? Once the power is there, it will elide into wider and wider use – as the many abuses of 'anti-terrorism' legislation in the UK and 'racketeering' laws in the US demonstrate all too clearly. Quicker than you think, anyone's data will be up for grabs. And public officials are not angels: would you really trust some junior police officer to preserve the confidence of your personal data?

And it is another invitation for government officials to go on a fishing trip. If our data can be hacked because some junior government officer declares that there is a 'suspicion' that we are up no no good, what judge would resist the application, and which of us would be safe from random searching?

Tim Cook declares that there are things that are difficult, and things that are right, and he figures that his stand against the authorities' demand to access personal data, even of utter scumbags, is both. He is right.