The explosion of the ‘security vs privacy’ debate surrounding mobile phone encryption, kicked off by tech giant Apple refusing to unlock an iPhone, is only likely to intensify as mobile security and encryption techniques become more and more advanced. Here, Sunday Standard examines the ‘Business of Encryption’.
Encryption is simply a way to enhance the security of a message or any data by scrambling the contents so that it can be read only by someone who has the right ‘key’ to unscramble it. And ever since the first spy created a simple substitution cipher to encrypt secret messages, there have been government agencies striving to break it. One of the biggest reasons the Germans were defeated in World War II was because the British managed to decrypt encrypted German radio messages, leading to invaluable access to information.
But modern encryption as used in newer mobile phones, has become so advanced that decrypting them is nigh impossible without the right ‘key’. In fact, Apple’s latest operating systems, after iOS 8, have such deep encryption that Apple itself could not comply with Court orders to assist law enforcement agencies in breaking information out of locked iPhones. In the most recent case, FBI approached Apple to create new software to enable the agency to unlock an iPhone 5C it recovered from one of the shooters in a December 2015 terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, that killed 14 people and injured 22. Apple refused, arguing that creating software to bypass its own security would tantamount to allowing them to get a backdoor to all iPhone security.
The request, Apple added, would establish a precedent that governments could use to force any technology company to create software that could undermine the security of its products and its customers’ privacy. With consumers demanding highly secure and private depositories for their data, Apple along with Facebook, Google etc, have opposed the FBI demand under the veil of protecting privacy. Facebook owned WhatsApp, for example, recently came out with encryption for all messages sent on it. Encryption, that it claims, even it cannot break.
The security implications are staggering. Governments and world leaders, including US President Obama and India’s own telecom minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, have come down on the side of law enforcement agencies, pointing to national security. Meanwhile, tech firms and privacy advocates argue that government agencies already have enough accessible data and a line needs to be drawn for privacy.
The FBI announced on April 28 that it had used ‘third party’ help to unlock the iPhone, withdrawing its demand for Apple’s assistance, bringing the court case to a close. The debate however, has only started.