Apple versus the US Government: why the Caribbean ought to pay attention

Apple intends to fight the US Government on a demand to breach the iPhone. Here is a discussion on why this issue should be important to the Caribbean.
Thanks to past revelations, such as those by Wikileaks and Edward Snowden, the world became aware of the extent to which the United States (US) Government had been monitoring the communication of not only its citizens, but also those in other countries. As expected, there was the uproar, and grave concern expressed about the extent of US surveillance, along with matters related to right to privacy, and the extent to which telecoms carriers were in cahoots with the US Government to facilitate those activities. However, over time, we returned to the bustle of our daily lives, and all of our anger and concerns faded into distant memories.

However, on Tuesday, 16 February, global tech firm, Apple, published a letter to its customers. Whilst the communication ought to be read in it entirely, in summary, the firm indicated that the US Government, specifically the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), had demanded that it create a new of the Operating System (OS) for the iPhone, which circumvents key security features. Essentially, Apple is being asked to create a backdoor in its OS in order to fully access all of the data stored on a device.

Apple has advised its customers that it intends to challenge the US Government’s request, which has been made by invoking and extending the reach of a 227‐year law. It is of the view that the request not only compromises the security of all iPhones, but also has far‐reaching implications with regard to exactly what data the US Government can access once it has tapped successfully into an individual’s phone.

From a Caribbean perspective, it may appear that we are far removed from the matter at hand, and can enjoy the unfolding spectacle without injury or being pulled into the fray. That is not the case. Below are four reasons why we should pay attention.

Mobile/cellular phones are integral to our lives and the iPhone is a coveted brand

Gone are the days when your mobile/cellular phone was used almost exclusively for voice calls. Thanks to smartphones, we are using these devices to, among other things, communicate via email and instant messages, manage our schedules, capture memories, monitor our health and fitness, and manage our money. Essentially, our smartphone has become an indispensable tool in our lives.

Luckily, there are numerous smartphones available on the market toay, with a broad range of features and capabilities from which to choose, thus allowing most of us to be able to afford a device in keeping with our budget. Having said this, the Apple iPhone is universally considered top of the line, in terms of price and its features. Hence it is the device many of us in the Caribbean aspire to own, but realistically, cannot afford.

Should Apple create the backdoor, without a doubt, existing iPhone users worldwide would be adversely affected. However, it would be easy to extend that feature to other Apple devices – the MacBook and iPad, to name a few. Should this demand succeed – for the US Government to have full access to data on an iPhone – it potentially could destabilse the entire consumer electronic market by causing firms to undermine their products.

The iPhone is perhaps one of the most secure phones on the market

There was a time when BlackBerry was the device of choice when one was looking for a highly secure mobile/cellular device. Even the US Government was a major customer. However, as BlackBerry took a tumble in popularity and governments and enterprises needed secure and progressive smartphones, comparable or even better that BlackBerry, the Apple iPhone emerged as the decided favourite.

All Apple devices are designed to operate in a closed ecosystem that is tightly controlled by Apple, which in turn has resulted in a very secure device, when compared with those that use the Android and Microsoft OS for example. This should thus lead us to wonder whether the US Government has already cracked Android- and/or Microsoft-based phones, which is why it is only directing Apple to breach its own security.

It is not what the US Government is legally permitted that is the real concern

As was noted by Apple in its letter to the customers, it may be argued that it seems unusual that the FBI sought to rely on what could be considered a very dated piece of legislation, the All Writs Act 1789, as a basis to compel Apple to do its bidding. According to Apple, the more conventional approach would be to have the issue openly debated by the US Congress and a final decision reached through that channel.

Further, in keeping with the behaviour reported via Wikileaks, Edward Snowden, etc., the greater concern is not the investigations the US Government might launch via subpoenas, court orders, etc., but those that are not being done via official channels and procedures. While a case has been made for pre-emptive surveillance, that argument must always be counterbalanced by what extent should an individual’s right to privacy should be breached, including those who live outside the US, without a truly defensible cause.

Sometimes it is important to take a stand

Finally, many might not be optimistic about Apple’s chances of success against the US Government. In fact, some of the major tech firms, such as Google and Microsoft, offered what seemed to be lukewarm support for the position Apple intends to take. However, sometimes it is important to take a stand and to be seen to do so – even in a David and Goliath situation – especially when so much, potentially, is at stake.


Image credit:  Ian Higgins (flickr)


1 Comment

  • Very illuminating and puts some meat in the story. There is a lot of glossing over in the media, which assumes everyone understood what’s involved.

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