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The core of Apple's argument

| Friday, Feb. 26, 2016, 8:57 p.m.

Marc Rotenberg is president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center and the author of “Privacy in the Modern Age: The Search for Solutions” (2015) and “Privacy Law and Society” (2016). He spoke to the Trib regarding the legal rift between Apple and the FBI over unlocking an iPhone used by a shooter in the San Bernardino, Calif., terrorist attack.

Q: What are the long-term implications of the Apple-FBI battle?

A: From the technology perspective, it places the company in the position of designing techniques to break the best features of the device. This has real implications for future design and for users' security. The implications are staggering. Would Apple then be responsible for making copies of the private digital keys on future iPhones so they could conduct a search if asked by law enforcement? Would every service provider then have a similar obligation?

Q: The FBI contends its demand that Apple compromise its iPhone security measures is a narrow counterterrorism tactic. Is that a reasonable position?

A: It's reasonable for the FBI to pursue information that is relevant to a criminal investigation. The question is whether it's reasonable for the FBI to compel a private company to break security features as part of the effort. Many technology experts and legal experts do not think so. From the technology perspective, Apple is being asked to develop a general-purpose technique to break and weaken the iPhone. The FBI has said it will only be used in this one circumstance, but ... once this technique is developed, then it could become available for use by others, including criminal hackers and repressive governments. To me, this seems unreasonable.

The United States today suffers from too little encryption, not too much. We have staggering levels of identity theft and financial fraud. ... Still, many companies routinely gather data without regard for the risk to customers or the need to encrypt. Apple should be commended for its strong stand. It is not only protecting privacy; it is also helping to reduce the risk of crime.

Q: Is the FBI attempting to publicly portray Apple as being weak on terror to force its cooperation?

A: FBI Director James Comey has emphasized the circumstances of the San Bernardino attack as part of his effort to force Apple to cooperate with the agency. This has likely helped influence public opinion. But it is only part of the story. Comey's views on encryption were well known before San Bernardino.

Q: Ultimately who wins this battle — privacy advocates or law enforcement?

A: It is possible that both sides could win. The Apple security features were adopted in response to law enforcement concerns about the growing risk of cellphone theft. According to Consumer Reports, more than 3.1 million cellphones were stolen in 2012. One of the very best ways to address the problem is to build in strong security features, which Apple has done.

In other words, the FBI may be frustrated about access to the phone in this one case. But overall, strong security features are good for consumer privacy and for law enforcement as they help reduce the level of crime.

Eric Heyl is a Tribune-Review columnist. Reach him at 412-320-7857 or

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