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Cracking the iPhone: the Apple v. FBI Controversy

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at McGill chapter.

On February 16, Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, released a “Customer Letter” in response to a court order to aid FBI officials in unlocking the iPhone 5c of Syed Farook, one of the San Bernardino terrorists.

“They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone,” wrote Cook. “This would make it easier to unlock an iPhone by ‘brute force,’ trying thousands or millions of combinations with the speed of a modern computer” (Apple).

In other words, according to Cook, if Apple were to comply with the order, the security of all iPhone users would be compromised. Given the extent to which people rely on their smartphones nowadays, having such a means for outside parties to access data in a locked phone is clearly an unsettling notion. Cook likened the FBI’s demand to the creation of a “master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks – from restaurants and banks to stores and homes” (Apple).

Photo courtesy of Simon Doggett via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

In the weeks since Apple took its firm stand against the court order, individuals in the tech world have been quick to voice their opinions and rally behind Cook and Apple. Mark Zuckerberg was one of the first major figures to speak out in support of Cook.

“I don’t think building back doors is the way to go, so we’re pretty sympathetic to Tim and Apple,” the creator of Facebook remarked (New York Times).

Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google, reiterated Cook’s principal concerns in a series of tweets.

“Forcing companies to enable hacking could compromise users’ privacy,” Pichai said. “Could be a troubling precedent” (Twitter).

Not long after, Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, also took to social media to publicly back Cook and thank him for his leadership.

Reform Government Surveillance, a coalition comprised of AOL, Apple, Dropbox, Evernote, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter, and Yahoo also published a statement echoing the same sentiments.

“[…] Technology companies should not be required to build in backdoors to the technologies that keep their users’ information secure,” the statement read (RGS).

However, not all tech executives are in complete agreement with Cook. Most notably, in an interview with the Financial Times, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates denied Cook’s claim that compliance with the order would set such a dangerous precedent.

“This is a specific case where the government is asking for access to information. They are not asking for some general thing, they are asking for a particular case,” said Gates (Financial Times).

Following the interview’s publication, Gates implied that his words may have been misunderstood.

“I was disappointed because that doesn’t state my view on this,” he said. “I do believe that with the right safeguards, there are cases where the government on our behalf – like stopping terrorism, which could get worse in the future – that that is valuable” (USA Today).

For the part of the FBI, the Bureau’s director, James Comey, claims that Cook’s principal argument is unfounded.

“The code the judge has directed Apple to write only works on this one phone, and so the idea of it getting out in the wild and it working on my phone or your phone … is not a real thing,” Comey argued (Digital Trends).

Though Apple has a history of helping FBI obtain data from locked phones, this is no longer possible due to increased security measures implemented in 2014. Since then, Apple itself has been unable to access iPhones, much to the dismay of many law enforcement officials, who cited concerns of criminals taking advantage of such airtight privacy policies to conceal evidence.

Following the FBI’s demands, Apple has reportedly even taken steps towards further upgrading their security to make hacking iPhones even more impossible.

Apple’s refusal to yield to the FBI’s demand was further supported on Monday, when a New York judge ruled that the government could not coerce the company to hack a locked iPhone in a separate case. On Tuesday, the tech company faced off against the FBI before Congress, who reportedly called the the Bureau’s demand “a fool’s errand” (The Guardian). The ultimate decision of this conflict now lies with the American legislative branch.

What began as a seemingly innocent plea for Apple to aid government officials in a crucial investigation has evolved into a question not only of national security but also of personal privacy, as well as the constant technological progress of society and our ability to keep up with it. Whatever the outcome of this case, the Apple-FBI controversy is certainly a pertinent issue that will be recorded in history textbooks to come.


Information obtained from:










Thumbnail photo courtesy of Faris Algosaibi via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Second in-text photo is author’s own

After spending a wonderful fall 2015 term in Paris, France, Regina is in her final semester at McGill University, studying Economics and French. She loves reading and writing in her spare time, travelling to foreign places, and baking anything she has the ingredients for. She also occasionally plays the oboe. Some of Regina's favourites include the colour blue, the season of fall, and the movie You've Got Mail. You can follow her on Instagram under the handle @reginawung.