Could Apple's Fight with FBI be Mostly PR?

Episode 1266 (02:14)

Apple has filed its response to the Department of Justice on the FBI's demand to unlock the San Bernardino shooter's iPhone. Nilay Patel, a professional attorney and founder of The Verge, says Apple's response is more of a PR response than a legal one. Normally you'd give the strongest argument first and then give additional arguments, but Apple started with the easiest-to-understand argument first. Among the arguments Apple used is a free speech defense. Since it's against the law for the government to compel someone to 'say' something, and computer code is 'speech,' it would be unconstitutional for the government to compel Apple to write code. Leo's coming more to the conclusion that the whole thing is theater, on both sides.

It is now completely clear that Apple can just look at an iCloud backup at any time and hand over all the data. The reason the FBI wants help with the terrorist's iPhone is because the phone hadn't backed up in 6 weeks, and they wanted to see if anything else had happened since the last backup. Apple even said that if the FBI hadn't changed the password, it could provide all of the data to the FBI. So that's a security concern right there, as most people's iPhones are being backed up to iCloud.

Leo thinks that the Department of Justice made this public because they would like to set a precedent that they can go to a tech company at any time to write special code. All computers already have a 'backdoor' of sorts through automatic updates. If Microsoft, Android, or Apple wants to publish an update to the phone that unlocks it for the purposes of the FBI, they can do that. That can also be used by hackers if they find out how to take advantage of that. The FBI just wants to go to any company and have them put special code in to help them.

This case will go to the Supreme Court, but even if the FBI loses, they still have leverage to go to congress and demand they need a new CALEA, Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, a bill passed in the 90's that gives law enforcement the right to go to a telecom company and ask for assistance. They could ask for a new CALEA to include tech companies as well.

The real debate here, because we've all been misguided by both Apple and the FBI, is not who does what to whom. It's that these smartphones we have are the world's best surveillance devices. We need to have a debate on whether or not we want strong encryption and true privacy on our phones or not. Do we want these phones to be private or not?

Read Nilay Patel's full article at