FBI iPhone Hack: The Tech World Can't Ignore Public Fears

A protester wears stars and stripes tape over her mouth during a hearing featuring testimony from heads of security services, Washington, February 25, 2016. Much of the public prizes security over privacy. Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

Are they in? Are they out? It's been hacking hokey-cokey around the iPhone belonging to Rizwan Farook, who with his wife murdered 14 people in San Bernardino in 2015.

The iPhone was discovered at the couple's house, and seized as evidence. Two months later, and the FBI was in court demanding Apple hack the phone because its agents couldn't do it.

It was, in fact, stronger than that. The court order recorded a declaration on the part of the FBI that nobody could unlock it apart from Apple. The FBI testified under oath to as much: "Apple has the exclusive technical means which would assist the government in completing its search." Invoking an archaic law, the 18th-century All Writs Act, the Bureau looked set for a legal showdown with one of the biggest technology companies in the world.

But the showdown never materialized. A few days before thedate of the hearing, the FBI announced it might be able to do it after all. With the help of an "outside party," reportedly Israeli tech firm Cellebrite, a way to decrypt the phone and access its data had been found. While they pursue that avenue, Apple's attorneys could be put on hold.

The case has caused outrage in the tech community. The anger was not so much directed at the ends as the means. The FBI must have known it might be able to access the phone all along—everything is hackable, after all—but was using the sensation around a terrorist attack to cut a precedent-setting master key that weakened users' security.

It was never about one phone. The FBI is trying to unlock lots of iPhones. Why this particular case turned into such a public clash isn't clear, but the only explanation turns on the sensation of a terrorist attack and its impact on public opinion. It feels a little like this wasn't just counterterrorism, but an attempt to set a legal precedent for forcing a technology company to help hack its own products.

That hasn't worked, and in response, the U.S. government has, astonishingly, hired a foreign company to hack a U.S. company. There is an expectation that any vulnerability will be disclosed—the White House has stressed the importance of this—but nobody is holding their breath.

An iPhone's value is, of course, tied to how safe it is to use. More and more of our lives are now recorded on our phones. If it emerged that all your bank details, text messages and risqué selfies were vulnerable to being plucked off your handset and used against you, either in identity fraud or simply "for the lolz," even the least tech-savvy user would be quick to ditch the phone.

The case does, however, hint at a separate, more troubling question in the technology community. Security researchers, whistle-blowers and internet freedom campaigners tend to be strongly opposed to the actions of the FBI, the NSA, GCHQ and so on—without necessarily taking into account the feelings of the public. At worst, this boils down to arrogance: we speak on behalf of the public and we know what's best for them, because they don't understand any of this stuff.

In fact, early on in the Apple vs FBI debate, some polls in the U.K. and U.S. suggested the public really did want Apple to unlock the phone, and were concerned about terrorists' and criminals' ability to hide their tracks.

It is vital, therefore, that the tech community listens as well as preaches. We may be entering a world where privacy comes second to safety for many people. However disappointing or frustrating that may seem to those whose lives are dedicated to keeping our private lives private, they should keep an ear to the ground.

Alex Krasodomski-Jones is a Digital Researcher at the think tank Demos.