As Attorney General William Barr calls for Apple to unlock a phone used by the suspect charged with killing sailors at a Florida Navy Base, it is important to consider the privacy implications of setting a precedent.
(TNS) — After a bloody shooting, police scramble to examine the trove of information contained on the killer’s smartphone. Clues and contacts may all be parked on the handset. But with Apple iPhones there’s a hitch: The data are encrypted and might vanish if investigators try to break in.
That dilemma came to light in 2016 when San Bernardino wanted access to the phone carried by a mass killer. But Apple wouldn’t cooperate, sticking with arguments about privacy and personal security.
Now the issue is surfacing again. Attorney General William Barr wants Apple to unlock the phone used by a suspect charged with killing three sailors at a Florida Navy base. There’s an added ingredient: The shooter was a Saudi with alleged ties to terrorist groups. As before, Apple is hanging back.
Despite the terrorism link, the tech company’s case remains just as convincing. Giving away access to law enforcement sounds appealing, but it comes with risks. Investigators may want to crack a phone on major crimes now but could go after lesser ones later. Also, if Apple offers a back door to phone data, that pathway could be discovered and exploited by hackers. In official hands in China or Russia, that access could be used to go after protesters facing specious criminal charges.
There’s another tidbit that Barr overlooks. A handful of tech firms have sprung up to offer ways to peer into iPhones. The firms sell their services only to law enforcement, minimizing the market while giving investigators what they want. Barr may be overdoing the helpless act.
Apple is no angel when it comes to online privacy. One of its defenses is the ocean of data out there for police to examine without snooping into smartphones. The company, as much as any firm, has harvested and marketed its customers iPhone habits, making the privacy argument tenuous. No doubt Barr is playing to public distrust of a tech giant like Apple.
But giving the Justice Department whatever it wants would be a mistake. Less snooping, even in the most dire cases, is preferable. It’s time to power down on Barr’s demand.
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