On December 2nd, 2015, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik opened fire on the city of San Bernardino, California, leaving 14 people, and the two shooters, dead. During the investigation the FBI obtained Farook’s iPhone, but could not access it through the passcode. They went Apple to unlock it, and Apple couldn’t help.
The iPhone’s encryption methods were so secure, according to Apple, that Apple itself couldn’t access the data on the phone. As a result, the U.S. government wanted Apple to purposefully weaken the encryption of its iPhones, putting a “backdoor” in the iOS framework that would allow the FBI to access the contents of iPhones everywhere. But this would also leave the operating system much more vulnerable to hackers and other governments.
The battle over online privacy has been waging on since the popularization of the internet itself. These discussions with Apple in particular have brought privacy activists and law enforcement head to head, fighting over who can utilize the privacy provided by encryption and what they can use that encryption for.
Messaging apps like Signal, WhatsApp and iMessage are encrypted. That means the messages are kept private from everyone except the intended recipient. And while these platforms are far from perfect – Jeff Bezos’ phone was recently accessed through a malicious video message via WhatsApp – many people rely on the privacy encryption provides daily.
Esra’a Al Shafei, for example, built a social platform called Ahwaa where individuals who identify as LGBTQ+ can virtually meet and talk with each other in Middle Eastern and North African countries such as Egypt, where homosexuality is not expressly illegal, but where the government has used laws against what they call debauchery, among others, to criminalize LGBTQ+ individuals.
Ahwaa is an online platform for individuals in the Middle East and North Africa who identify as LGBTQ+
Al Shafei says that, if encryption were to be forcibly weakened, she would have to shut down the platform. She said, “the Internet as a whole will lose so many voices, so many communities, so many narratives, so many perspectives.”
Michael Daniel, President and CEO of Cyber Threat Alliance and former Cybersecurity Coordinator on the National Security Council Staff under Barack Obama, says that “there are situations where we would want the government to be able to get access to certain information.” For Michael, it’s important to make a distinction between information that should remain encrypted, like bank data and health data, and information that might be beneficial to make available to law enforcement, like text message.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation disagrees. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for the government to decide that they get security and we don’t,” says Cindy Cohn, Executive Director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Amnesty International agreed with this sentiment in an open letter to Facebook, urging the company to stay strong on its decision to implement end-to-end encryption on its messaging platforms, saying “there is no middle ground: if law enforcement is allowed to circumvent encryption, then anybody can.”
The debate continues, and is likely to continue, until a compromise can be made. Whether that will ever happen has yet to be seen.