The link between major tech companies and the government has been a delicate one, and it has worsened in recent times. Data privacy and consumer security have changed over the years, leaving companies in Silicon Valley with a riddle to solve. How do you balance the need to protect users and without meddling with the government’s pursuit of surveillance in the face of security threats?
Washington and tech groups face looming battle over security https://t.co/7ewlshKLZk
— Financial Times (@FT) January 16, 2020
The Government Flip-Flops on Surveillance Approaches
This week, we witnessed two separate resolutions concerning government interactions with tech companies. These cases involved two tech giants, Apple and Microsoft, on the subject of security. For Apple, the company was planted into a disagreeable position by the White House and Attorney General William Barr. The AG had implored the company to assist law enforcement investigations by breaking into encrypted iPhones belonging to Second Lt. Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani- the naval officer who killed three people at a military facility in Florida.
Since the Justice Department made this request, Apple has fought back. In a statement to Yahoo! Finance, the Silicon Valley giant reiterated that creating back doors could end up coming back to haunt everyone.
US Attorney General William Barr has asked Apple to unlock two encrypted iPhones belonging to the perpetrator of a fatal shooting.
— Andrew Stroehlein (@astroehlein) January 17, 2020
“We have always maintained there is no such thing as a backdoor just for the good guys. Backdoors can also be exploited by those who threaten our national security and the data security of our customers. Today, law enforcement has access to more data than ever before in history, so Americans do not have to choose between weakening encryption and solving investigations,” the statement reads.
For all intents, the case presents a Deja Vu; back in 2016, a similar standoff ensued, with Apple arguing at the time that installing a backdoor to its devices would put all users at risk. Simply put, it wasn’t ready to put its consumers in harm’s way in exchange for the convenience of the government.
On the flip side, the National Security Agency informed Microsoft about a security flaw it discovered on the Windows 10 platform. The vulnerability had to do with Windows certificates and could be dangerous. In the wrong hands, bugs like this could allow attackers to trick computers into downloading malware.
.@Microsoft has shipped out a #security patch to address a serious vulnerability in the #Windows operating system after tip‑off from NSA. Read more from our #WeLiveSecurity blog here: https://t.co/ZiKtO6Ri1D pic.twitter.com/8CLFVnqKVC
— ESET (@ESET) January 16, 2020
By sounding the alarm on such a vulnerability, the NSA showed that it could place consumer safety over surveillance, which is unlike the NSA. The agency has made a habit of keeping things like this to itself and deploying them against entities that it considers adversaries. This isolated incident doesn’t necessarily mean it has turned a new leaf, but it still marks a step forward in prioritizing customer privacy.
Back Doors Aren’t to Be Trifled With
The NSA has also had its fair share of mishaps. Years back, a trove of its data was leaked, leading to the creation of the WannaCry ransomware- one of the most dangerous computer malware ever made. That leak alone was one of the most significant contributing factors to the tech companies’ opposition to back doors.
Regardless, the White House wants Apple to create one now while it’s purpose is being served, as Barr claimed in a Monday press conference that Apple needed to provide “lawful access” to his department in its bid to investigate what it termed a terrorist attack.
Apple’s ability to hold on to that belief is about to be put to the test against the highest legal enforcement body in the nation.