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.
“Apple has no problem trying to gather every bit of our personal data for marketing,” Stevens tweeted, “but [feels] obligated to protect privacy of dead mass murderers?”
Government officials, meanwhile, rallied around the FBI and U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym. New York Police Commissioner William Bratton opined that “no device, no car and no apartment should be beyond the reach of a court-ordered search warrant.
The U.S. Justice Department has insisted the order is “narrowly tailored to this particular phone” and would “not require Apple to redesign its products, to disable encryption or to open content on the phone.”
Eileen Decker, a U.S. attorney whose central California district includes San Bernardino, framed the debate as a matter of fairness to people like Reyes who are mourning those killed.
“We have made a solemn commitment to the victims and their families that we will leave no stone unturned as we gather as much information and evidence as possible,” Decker said. “These victims and families deserve nothing less.”
Victim’s husband: ‘The mystery needs to be resolved’
Mandy Pifer’s boyfriend, Shannon Johnson, was there that day at the Inland Regional Center. He sacrificed his own body to shield his co-worker Denise Peraza as the gunshots rang out, saving her life while giving his own.
Pifer initially sided with the government in its quest to access the contents of Farook’s phone and had criticized Apple.
But after researching the issue, Pifer became undecided on the matter, she told CNN on Thursday.
“I’ve done some more reading. I understand more the Apple side of it,” Pifer said. “I think it says a lot about America that this security only took place because nude photos of celebrities were hacked. So now you can’t hack into a terrorist’s phone.”
At the same time, Farook’s phone may hold answers on whether the terrorist called any conspirators, and that information could help grieving families and loved ones. “For those people, the more answers they get, the more peace it brings,” she said.
But, overall, she added, “I’m torn. I’m just torn.”
“I want justice for all. I have both feet on both sides. I guess I’m just prepared for this to be in the news for a long time and for it to go to the Supreme Court,” she said.
Salihin Kondoker, whose wife, Anies Kondoker, was shot and survived, said, “Apple needs to help.”
“There is so much mystery with this case,” he said. “The mystery needs to be resolved.”
Asked what she’d tell those like Kondoker, Greer said she understands their desire to prevent others from enduring the pain they’ve experienced. But she says having Apple find a workaround to its security features defeats this purpose if it paves the way for other people, governments – even terrorist groups – to access people’s private information.
“What the government is trying to do here is not going to make us safer,” Greer said. “It’s going to make us more at risk for these type of attacks and, in fact, more at risk for all types of violent crime.”
It’s already energized a lot of people who feel the same way, including those planning to attend rallies next Tuesday outside more than a dozen Apple stores organized by Fight for the Future, where Greer serves as campaign director.
“This is one of the biggest things to happen since the (Edward) Snowden revelations,” she said, referring to the ex-NSA contractor whose leaking of official secrets made him a villain in the U.S. government’s eyes and hero among those fighting for government openness and against excess surveillance.
“… People have a relationship with their phones. And I think that’s what’s galvanizing people.”