During February 2016, we saw an unprecedented request from the United States' Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) requesting Apple to create a special method for the FBI that would allow them to brute force hack any iOS device until they crack it without the device locking them out and wiping itself clean after ten failed attempts.
Tim Cook, Apple's CEO, publicly refused this request by sending a letter to Apple customers.
A Message To Our Customers | Apple
Considering they are looking to crack a phone of a criminal who was involved in the San Bernardino shootings in the United States, is the FBI request justifiable?
You might be wondering how does this concern Africa, well, juxtapose this FBI request with the Uganda Communications Commission ordering mobile service providers in the country to block social media and mobile money during elections during February 2016 (Can you guess who won the elections in Uganda?) for "security & public order reasons" then you start asking yourself what happens if such "backdoors" fall into hands of repressive regimes that can use them as they wish.
On the other hand, considering that the San Bernardino victims' families have protested Tim Cook's letter and have urged him to assist the FBI, I ask you, where do we draw the line when it comes to privacy?
What Is At Stake?
Let's take this back to where it all started, actually, two places where it all started and have resulted in this stand-off between Apple and the FBI.
First is the revelations by one Edward Snowden. Snowden unleashed a cache of documents into the public domain via some publications and journalists that revealed the extent to which the US' National Security Agency (NSA) not only spies on people suspected on being terrorists but US citizens too without any legal mandate. This, as would be expected, brought about a lot of public outrage and outcry directed at the NSA as well as those corporations that co-operated with them in unlawfully spying on US and foreign nationals.
Second, San Bernardino.
This is a mass shooting and attempted bombing by terrorists in the USA that ended up with 22 people dead in 2015. One of the shooters had an Apple iPhone which the law enforcement personnel managed to get hold off. Now they can't access data on it thanks to the pass code required. Thanks to Apple iOS, were they to brute force hack the iPhone and get to attempt number 10 without unlocking it, the device would wipe all the data on it and make it useless for further investigations into the case.
Where do we draw the line when it comes to privacy? Tweet
This is where the FBI have since asked Apple to help them create an iOS version that would allow them to bypass this "10-failed-tries-then-wipe" feature for "this specific iPhone".
Apple, rightfully, have argued that this constitutes a backdoor and could be used on any other iPhone. But, surely Apple could help with just this iPhone or is it a matter of "customer perception" that if they help the FBI with this phone what other secret operations are they assisting the FBI with?
The FBI, rightfully so too, have argued that they only need assistance with just this one iPhone especially because it involves a criminal.
Stalemate, so far.
Is Apple playing "for the gallery"?
Does the FBI have other more sinister plans?
It really is a tough call given the context of the extensive NSA spying as revealed by Snowden and that in this specific case, a criminal is involved.
At this stage, you might ask, what does this have to do with Africa?
During February 2016, preceding the Uganda elections, the Uganda Communications Commission ordered mobile service providers to block social media, instant messaging and mobile money services citing "public order and safety". This ban continued for approximately a week until the election results were declared.
The problem then becomes that if one country's security agency can legitimately ask someone like Apple for (what is perceived to be) a backdoor, then what stops Ugandan authorities, for example, from concocting a "legitimate" reason to get a backdoor to a device belonging to, say, an opposition leader?
We have seem many bloggers and journalists in Kenya being arrested over frivolous reasons and have heard calls by various government agencies on the continent for regulation of things such as social media, instant messaging and in some cases the internet at large. All these call have pointed to authorities who seem to want to quell dissident voices by using policies, laws and state organs.
The families and friends of those killed in the San Bernardino case have called for Apple to comply with the FBI request as, again rightfully so, they's like to see the investigation completed and all those involved in planning and executing the shooting arrested.
Is this the price we are prepared to pay?
That is, privacy needs to be maintained by any means necessary irrespective of whoever is involved?
Would we afford the same privacy to, say, a president who stole public funds and key evidence is on their iPhone that completes the investigation?
Cover Image, StormTrooperPhone II | Simon Doggett