Access to Encrypted iPhones – The Apple Encryption Debate

The tech world is in a frenzy over the letter Apple’s CEO Tim Cook sent to the FBI in response to a request for Apple to create essentially a backdoor to be able to access the San Bernardino terrorists iPhone. It’s a messy and a complex situation which puts government against industry and privacy advocates against security advocates. Tim Cook in his letter is right that “this moment calls for public discussion.”

My favorite venture capitalist blogger, Fred Wilson, summed it up best for me when he said this in response to Tim Cook’s assertion that the contents of your iPhone are none of Apple’s business:

That is not an open and shut case to me.

Of course I’d like the contents of my iPhone to be out of reach of everyone other than me. But if that means the contents of the iPhones of child pornographers, sex slaverunners, narco gangsters, terrorists, and a host of other bad people are “none of our business” then that gives me pause.

I don’t think we can have it both ways. We have to choose one way or the other.

I think this is also complicated by the fact that Apple had unlocked phones previously. Albert Wenger expresses my fears around this subject:

We cannot and should not be living in digital fortresses any more than we are living in physical fortresses at home. Our homes are safe from thieves and from government not because they couldn’t get in if they wanted to but because the law and its enforcement prevents them from doing so. All we have to do is minimal physical security (lock the doors when you are out).

Please repeat after me: Surveillance is a political and legal problem, not a technical problem.

This quote is particularly interesting to me since this weekend when my family and I were away on a trip for President’s Day weekend, someone broke into our house (Side Note: We’re all fine and they realized once they got in that we didn’t have anything valuable to take. We mostly just had to deal with a broken door).

I feel similar to my favorite VC who said “I am struggling with this issue this morning, and I imagine many others are too.”

Turning to the healthcare perspective, privacy and security of health information is so important. It’s literally the intimate details of your life. I’ve heard some argue that Apple creating a way for the FBI to access this one phone would mean that all of our health information on iPhones would be at great risk of being compromised. I think that’s an exaggeration of what’s happening, but I understand the slippery slope argument.

What’s interesting is that none of us want our healthcare data to be compromised. However, if we were in a coma and the life saving information was on our iPhone, we’d love for someone to have a way to access that information. I’ve seen startup companies who’ve built that ability into the iPhone home screen for just this purpose.

I guess I’m torn on the issue. Privacy is important, but so is security. This weekend I’m going to be chewing on “We cannot and should not be living in digital fortresses any more than we are living in physical fortresses at home.” The problem with this concept is that fortresses are something we can plan and build. The other solutions are much more complex.

About the author

John Lynn

John Lynn

John Lynn is the Founder of the HealthcareScene.com, a network of leading Healthcare IT resources. The flagship blog, Healthcare IT Today, contains over 13,000 articles with over half of the articles written by John. These EMR and Healthcare IT related articles have been viewed over 20 million times.

John manages Healthcare IT Central, the leading career Health IT job board. He also organizes the first of its kind conference and community focused on healthcare marketing, Healthcare and IT Marketing Conference, and a healthcare IT conference, EXPO.health, focused on practical healthcare IT innovation. John is an advisor to multiple healthcare IT companies. John is highly involved in social media, and in addition to his blogs can be found on Twitter: @techguy.

3 Comments

  • Those that give up liberty for the sake of security will have neither. Good ole Ben F told us that. Apple did help the FBI with the case. The FBI bungled it. So did the county who gave him the phone. That is not Apple’s fault nor should they be compelled to write new code to decrypt a phone.
    What would keep the police or FBI from asking on the next tragic incident? How tragic does it have to be? Then why not just let NSA FBI and police look at everything. Slippery slope indeed.
    How would we be protected from HIPAA issues if every large tech company lost all encryption and security? Talk about breaches, might as well just end HIPAA right there. Would be a free for all.
    This process of investigation is meant to be difficult for a reason. It should not be easy to get information. I do feel for the victims, but they need to understand that there is balance of privacy and security. I truly feel that our own government would abuse such back doors and compromises.
    As for your coma situation, if you have some medical issue that is important that people know, then locking it up on an encrypted phone is not the place to hide it. Should be much more obvious and available.
    I will not decrypt a phone to look for medical information. Never. So don’t do that.
    Apple will not lose this case, even if it goes all the way up to the Supreme Court, and it might.
    But our forefathers wanted us to be protected from this exact type of infringement of rights.
    And in the end, though its more work and problematic for the FBI, it will be worth it to protect those rights.

  • I agree with meltoots.
    There may be no absolutes yet the slope has already been slipped on.
    We live in a scary world…and for all that think we can police everything… well..I have the proverbial bridge to sell you. No amount of righteousness can justify this level of invasion of privacy.

  • I’m no Apple fanboi. but I read something recently that gave *me* pause: Suppose that Apple were based in China and had incorporated a backdoor into its devices. Would you be so eager to use such a product?

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