According to multiple reports yesterday, Congress will create a panel next week to discuss how technology companies should participate in an investigation that involves encryption. FBI Director James Comey and Apple's Senior Vice President and General Counsel Bruce Sewell will meet with the Judiciary Committee on March 1 in a landmark panel discussion.
The obvious point of contention here is the court order related to the iPhone used by the San Bernardino shooter in December. Apple has refused to provide a way for the FBI to unlock the phone, which the tech giant says would require making a brand new operating system.
If you've been following the case, you know the presidential candidates, including Donald Trump and Marco Rubio, have taken sides. Last night at the Republican debate, Rubio seemed to take a new position against Apple and suggested that there was an easier solution--a way to break into the phone that would not compromise the security of every iPhone user (and, by extension, many other devices. Earlier, he had supported Apple because of how it would set a precedence.
On Wednesday, Apple CEO Tim Cook gave an extensive interview with ABC News where he compared creating the backdoor as the software equivalent of cancer. Yesterday, Apple filed a motion to dismiss the court order on the grounds that it violates free speech.
This is, as you might guess, just the beginning.
It's just a matter of time before Congress calls Tim Cook into to testify, and it's just a matter of time before other tech luminaries--possibly Mark Zuckerberg from Facebook or Eric Schmidt from Alphabet (the new umbrella company that owns Google)--to testify. We might see a cadre of tech experts from Silicon Valley, legal experts, security professionals, and ethical hackers. From there, it's likely this case will go all the way to the Supreme Court to decide the future of encryption.
My view is a bit nuanced, to say the least. My fear is that this case will lead to more court orders, more government involvement in the affairs of tech companies, and more battles even between the tech giants who take slightly different views on data security. My other fear is that the tech giants will be motivated to take a stance that is good for the bottom line, not necessarily their customers. There could be a new encryption war where the focus turns to who can protect data better--Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, or other large companies)--and we lose focus on making the devices useful and innovative in ways that helps us get more productive.
The case also makes me wonder if there is a way to resolve the problem without compromising security and privacy for everyone. For example, in the ABC interview, Cook admitted that there could have been a way to retrieve the information from a cloud backup if the FBI had not reset the iCloud phone. (When that happens, the iPhone stops making backups to the cloud.) OK, so is there another small crack somewhere that the government can use without having Apple create new software? Is there a way to dismantle the phone and access the data in a different way? Could a portion of the data be unlocked (say, just the contacts) but not all of the data?
I'm as curious about the outcome of this case as anyone, but I'm even more curious about how the tech companies will have to change in the next year or more. One report already indicated that Apple plans to beef up iPhone security even more.
My guess is that we'll see more interest in phones from companies like Silent Circle (makers of the Blackphone) and even BlackBerry soon enough.