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A Privacy Advocate's View Of Ordering Apple To Help Unlock Shooter's iPhone

Marc Rotenberg, head of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, opposes phones that would have a built-in backdoor.
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Marc Rotenberg, head of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, opposes phones that would have a built-in backdoor.

A federal judge in California has ordered Apple to help unlock a phone used by one of the shooters in the San Bernardino attack. Apple CEO Tim Cook has vowed to resist the judge's order, which pits digital privacy against national security interests.

Marc Rotenberg, a privacy advocate who heads the Electronic Privacy Information Center, is concerned that the ruling could have far-reaching consequences beyond this one phone. NPR's Renee Montagne spoke with Rotenberg about the case.

What exactly is the court ordering Apple to do?

It appears that the magistrate judge wants Apple to design the iPhone so there is a backdoor access by law enforcement to the content — the digital data on the phone — and that's the order that Tim Cook is resisting.

Isn't the court just talking about this individual phone and bypassing its auto erase?

Well, they're actually doing both simultaneously. In other words, the FBI has the phone in its possession and they want access to the data, but the phone is designed in such a way so that Apple actually can't get that access. So the implication of the ruling if Apple complies is that going forward, iPhones will need to be designed with this type of access. We understand that Apple has actually cooperated with law enforcement in the investigation right up to this point, where the judge has said in effect: "We now need the backdoor access to the phone," which is not currently part of the phone's design.

Apple argues that harm will come out of this. What exactly would that be?

They're just thinking about the hundreds of millions of users and frankly, the implications of a government being able to compel a service provider to design a technology to enable access to personal information. Nobody really disputes that if a company is in possession of evidence, they should, with proper legal authority, turn it over to the government.

The question is whether companies should be compelled to design their technology for future investigations so that evidence is available, and that's what Apple and other companies have been resisting. And I think they've done this, of course, because the implications for online privacy are staggering, as well as the implications for the policies that might be adopted by countries outside of the U.S. China, for example, I'm sure, would love a similar decryption capability.

How about the government's argument that this is in the interest of national security and that right now, these phones could go dark?

The national security concerns are real, and I don't think there's any dispute about the need to address them. The question is, how best to address them. In other words, if by addressing the national security concerns, you make U.S. Internet users and iPhone customers more vulnerable to criminal attack or to national security vulnerabilities, you actually haven't solved the problem. You've created a new problem and this is the reason that so many technology experts and privacy experts have said to the government: "We're not unsympathetic to the concern, but we actually believe that if you weaken communications technology, you leave U.S. Internet users more exposed," and that's where the debate is today.

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