ISIS supporter Syed Farook and his wife killed 14 people on December 2 in San Bernardino, California
Loved ones of the victims rip Apple's decision not to help authorities access one of the killer's phones
But online privacy advocates side with the tech giant, saying the precedent could be more dangerous in the long run
For Ryan Reyes, it’s personal.
Granted, many people have strong opinions over whether Apple helps the FBI break into the iPhone of San Bernardino killer Syed Farook. It’s not just about that single device, they say, but larger issues like privacy and security. It’s about how best to balance protecting any one person’s secrets and society as a whole.
Reyes’ viewpoint, though, is shaped by one person he’ll never get back: his boyfriend, Daniel Kaufman, one of 14 gunned down during a holiday luncheon at the southern California city’s Inland Regional Center. He has been grieving ever since that December 2 terrorist attack, while authorities have been trying to figure out why Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik – radical Islamists who supported ISIS – did what they did.
Now, Reyes is trying to figure out why Apple would do what it did this week: oppose a federal judge’s order to hack Farook’s phone, a step CEO Tim Cook said would involve producing “something we consider too dangerous to create.”
“It’s infuriating to me, because I feel like all companies – especially U.S. companies – should do what they have to do to protect our country,” said an “extremely pissed-off” Reyes, who is considering “getting rid of all [of his] Apple products” following Cook’s announcement.
“Even if I wasn’t involved in this, I would still want Apple to comply. That’s what decent human beings should be doing.”
Reyes isn’t the only one for whom this debate strikes a personal chord.
It matters, too, to Evan Greer. A transgender woman and activist since high school, she’s seen “the deeply chilling effect of overly broad government surveillance,” including some who shut themselves off and even suffer post-traumatic stress disorder. She views the FBI’s request and judge’s corresponding order as just one more example, saying it could end up making things far worse for everyone if whatever is created to hack Farook’s phone ends up being used or copied to break into millions more mobile devices.
Greer said such sentiments drive her work as an advocate for protecting people’s rights online, work she hopes will make the world better for her now 5-year-old son.
“What type of world is he going to grow up in?” she asked, applauding Apple for standing up against the government for “democracy and freedom of speech.” “Will it be one in which he’s constantly being monitored, … where he feels that he has no privacy?”
“…I want him to have the ability to educate himself about [what’s going on in the world] and to do something about it without feeling the government will be watching him.”
Tracking killers’ electronic trail a challenge
This debate wouldn’t have happened if not for what unfolded more than two months ago on what should have been a festive occasion, a party for Farook’s co-workers at the San Bernardino County Health Department.
Authorities arrived to the horrific sounds of “moans and wails,” and the discovery that the killers had escaped. (They would be killed later that day in a rented SUV after a shootout with police.)
Police hadn’t had any involvement with Farook or Malik until then, though investigators quickly began digging into both. Tracking their electronic trail became a big part of the investigation, though the shooters didn’t make it easy.
Malik advocated for jihad on social media, but she did it under a pseudonym and used strict privacy settings that did not allow people outside a small group of friends to see them, U.S. law enforcement officials said.
Who specifically did she and her husband talk to? Who helped them? Both shooters’ phones could help provide answers to these and many other questions, which is why authorities sought Apple’s help in accessing Farook’s cell.
Apple CEO claims request creates ‘backdoor’
Apple has helped the FBI in the past with requests to access information from phones. And before Tuesday’s order, investigators had gotten permission to take data off Farook’s phone.
The problem: Accessing Farook’s data was much more difficult because the device had been locked with a user-generated numeric passcode.
Under Apple’s operating systems, someone gets 10 tries to enter the right code to access a phone, the government explained in documents seeking the order. After 10 straight failures, Apple’s auto-erase function kicks in, permanently wiping all information from the phone.
That’s why federal authorities have asked, in court, for Apple’s help. And they continued these efforts Friday afternoon, filing a request in federal court in California’s central district trying to compel Apple to comply with the judge’s order.
The California-based tech giant claims that, to comply, it would have to create a new version of the iPhone operating system to circumvent key security features on Farook’s phone.
“In the wrong hands, this software – which does not exist today – would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession,” Cook wrote in an open letter, which claimed the government overreached by asking for “a backdoor to the iPhone.”
Passion on both sides of the debate
Cook quickly found support around the tech industry, with Google CEO Sundar Pichai worrying that Apple’s compliance “could be a troubling precedent.”
The response was so resounding that Silicon Valley entrepreneur Alex Lindsay surmised, “Any communications/tech CEO that isn’t standing with Apple against the FBI is basically admitting that they’ve already been compromised.”
Others, though, have slammed Apple. Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump has been among the most vocal. Stuart Stevens, a political consultant who had been a top adviser to GOP candidate Mitt Romney’s losing 2012 presidential bid, wondered on Twitter how a company that “put cameras & recording devices in every one’s pocket” could suddenly be a champion for privacy.