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Apple vs. FBI – Technology and the New Legal Frontier

Yogi Patel - Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Mobile devices in general have arguably taken over as the main portal through which significant portions of people in our society communicate. And with the advancement of technology, the mobile device is now and will continue to become, the main portal through which we engage in every day transactions. We can now use our phones to engage in banking, ordering groceries, booking vacations, researching novel questions, storing our personal information and to do just about anything else we want. The amount of data that can be derived from our mobile devices can reveal just about every aspect of our day-to-day lives. From the websites we visit, to the phrases we search. Our phones, for better or worse, can probably reveal more about us than we could if we tried to provide our own narrative. Think about how naked and vulnerable you felt the last time you left home without your phone. For most of us, it has become a necessity. We truly cannot imagine life without our mobile devices – and this is not going to change anytime soon. We will undoubtedly continue to use our mobile devices to share even more personal information about ourselves. And with this in mind, consider the dispute between Apple and the FBI –which is ultimately between privacy and safety.

The iPhone is known for its nearly impenetrable security features and thus, is one of the many reasons that Apple’s products are considered superior to others in the market place. The latest challenge to privacy comes in the form of the unlocking the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters. The FBI has been unable to unlock and access the device and is now relying on the courts to compel Apple to do so. Apple is not complying because it fears future implications of the government’s ability to access their devices.

While the FBI has only requested that Apple help the government access the gunmen’s iPhone, the broader implications of the request are the true cause of conflict and concern here. The government is essentially asking for Apple to create an encryption system that would provide them access to any Apple device after securing a warrant. The Government’s position appears to be carefully considered and narrowly tailored. Many experts consider this case as the “perfect case” for litigating the issue of privacy concerns against the governments need to access incriminating information in the evolving world where technology controls access. Since the case involves terrorism, the government’s interest in encroaching on privacy concerns is less likely to cause a public outcry and provides sufficient justification for the court’s to reach a decision allowing it to gain access to an encrypted system.

Besides the privacy vs. security considerations implicated here, this case also raises the issue of how far the government can go in requiring a business to perform functions that have no financial value to the Company. In this case, the FBI wants Apple to develop a new version of the iPhone operating system, whereby the new versions would allow the government to bypass the security features on its product. The sole purpose of this software would be to allow the government to have access to the data on such phones when appropriate. Apple’s shareholders do not stand to gain financially by cooperating with the government. In fact, developing this software would arguably weaken Apple’s overall security system and potentially have a negative impact on its market-share and subsequently the value of the Company to its shareholders.

The implication of this dispute also extends to how other privileges could be potentially compromised. Given that smartphones such as the iPhone store so much personal data, it is important to note that if the government were given such access, they would ultimately be able to access emails, photos, and text messages. This access would present challenges to right of privacy amongst privileged relationships. For example, confidential communications between attorney and client, marital communications amongst spouses and patient-psychotherapist relationship may be easily penetrable.

Other technology companies such as Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Twitter and Dell understand the implications of this dispute as well. Most have pledged support for Apple and are expected to submit Amicus positions in the pending litigation. These companies also fear that the government will make similar requests thus compromising their security and intellectual property.


This Article was co-authored by Asima Chaudhary, an intern at Lloyd Patel LLP and a second year law student at the City University of New York Law School.


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