Apple iPhone

The FBI’s announcement last week that it hacked into an iPhone raises questions about the security of data in both public and private hands.

Associated Press archives

After the revelation that the FBI was able to successfully hack into an iPhone without the help of Apple, consumers may be wondering whether government agencies or corporations are more trustworthy with their private data.

“Twenty years ago, if someone had told us that we would all have a tiny little device that tracks our information ... we would’ve said, ‘That will never happen,’” said UW-Madison professor Dietram Scheufele. “Twenty years later, we all want to have it.”

Scheufele, an expert in media and social media, said that events like the FBI hack usually cause a temporary outcry which dies away as quickly as it comes.

“[Consumers] are not going to care,” he said.

Consumers are still going to want a more customized experience when they use Spotify or any other free app services and in order for that to happen, the companies have to collect data about us, explained Scheufele.

Scheufele, a native of Germany, said the circumstances in Europe are opposite from the U.S. when dealing with the protection of data privacy — the government is trusted to have access, but corporations are not.

“As a European, it’s flipped and no one understands why people are upset about the government (accessing private data), but not upset about Apple,” he said.

It is a closely held secret how the FBI hacked the iPhone, which led to the dismissal of the Justice Department’s lawsuit against Apple, but a few clues have emerged.

A senior law enforcement official told The Associated Press that the FBI managed to defeat an Apple security feature that threatened to delete the phone’s contents if the FBI failed to enter the correct passcode combination after 10 tries. That allowed the government to guess the correct passcode by trying random combinations until the software accepted the right one.

It wasn’t clear how the FBI also bypassed a related Apple security feature that deliberately introduces increasing time delays in how frequently guesses can be entered. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because this person was not authorized to discuss the technique publicly.

The FBI hacked into the iPhone used by gunman Syed Farook, who died with his wife in a gun battle with police after they killed 14 people in December in San Bernardino, California. The iPhone, issued to Farook by his employer, the county health department, was found in a vehicle the day after the shooting; two personal phones were found destroyed completely so the FBI couldn’t recover information from them.

The FBI was reviewing information from the iPhone, and it was unclear whether anything useful would be found.

“Suppose the hacked iPhone revealed nothing. Was it worth the price to have had it hacked?” said Robert Drechsel, a UW-Madison journalism professor and director of its Center for Journalism Ethics.

Apple said last week that the legal case to force its cooperation “should never have been brought,” and it promised to increase the security of its products. CEO Tim Cook has said the Cupertino-based company is constantly fending off security threats and trying to improve security.

The FBI’s announcement — even without revealing precise details — that it had hacked the iPhone was directly at odds with the U.S. government’s firm recommendations for nearly two decades that security researchers always work cooperatively and confidentially with software manufacturers before revealing that a product might be susceptible to hackers.

Those guidelines lay out a specific process about how and when to announce that commercial software might be vulnerable. The aim was to ensure that American consumers stay as safe online as possible and prevent premature disclosures that might damage a U.S. company or the economy.

“I can’t instantly point to any data that shows whether users are becoming more concerned and savvy about their technological privacy, but if they aren’t, they should be,” said Drechsel. “Perhaps all of the attention the Apple-FBI conflict has gotten will lead more people to think about the issue.”

Drechsel, who has expertise in several fields including media law, privacy, access to information and the First Amendment, said consumers are quick to say that the government can access private data to support national security, but they don’t consider the issue entirely.

It’s hard to disagree with the argument that it could be vital to see contents of a “bad guy’s” phone, but government access to private devices is going to affect everyone, said Drechsel.

“If that iPhone isn’t safe from prying eyes — not just the government’s eyes but the eyes of any hacker who can break in — then no one’s iPhone is,” he said. “Obviously, as people began to contemplate that possibility, many began to worry about their own ability to control access to the broad range of data residing on their phones.”

For some, like Madison area resident Josh Klemons, it isn’t a deterrent from using Apple devices.

“I definitely love my iPhone,” said Klemons. “Generally, I think when we live in a technologically connected world, we should be having real discussions about the implications of it.”

It isn’t so much an Apple-specific issue but one of technology in general, Klemons said. Today it’s Apple, but tomorrow it could be Facebook or Samsung.

So, regardless of the company, consumers should be aware of the reality of a technological world.

“We should all be concerned about technological privacy — and not just in the national security context,” added Drechsel.

Drechsel said the majority of our day-to-day lives online are already closely monitored, a lot of it by companies that make the technology we use. It comes down to whether the public trusts the government with their information or the ability to acquire it.

“Corporations know us better than we know ourselves,” said Scheufele. “It’s a whole new world and I think it has positives and negatives connected to it.”

To Drechsel, the incident between Apple and the FBI raises more nuanced issues than whether or not one iPhone should be hacked. It also opens the door for discussion about what citizens are willing to give up in the name of national security.

“Obviously, as people began to contemplate that possibility, many began to worry about their own ability to control access to the broad range of data residing on their phones,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


Amanda Finn is an arts and lifestyle reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.