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EncryptionIn FBI versus Apple, government strengthened tech’s hand on privacy

By Rahul Telang

Published 29 February 2016

The ongoing fight between Apple and the FBI over breaking into the iPhone maker’s encryption system to access a person’s data is becoming an increasingly challenging legal issue. This case is very specific, and in this narrow case, Apple and law enforcement agencies will likely find a compromise. However, this question is not going away anywhere. With the “Internet of things” touted as the next big revolution, more and more devices will capture our very personal data – including our conversations. This case could be a precedent-setting event that can reshape how our data are stored and managed in the future.

The ongoing fight between Apple and the FBI over breaking into the iPhone maker’s encryption system to access a person’s data is becoming an increasingly challenging legal issue.

With a deadline looming, Apple filed court papers explaining why it is refusing to assist the FBI in cracking a password on an iPhone used by one of the suspects in the San Bernardino shooting. CEO Tim Cook has declared he will take the case all the way to the Supreme Court.

The tech company now wants Congress to step in and define what can be reasonably demanded of a private company, though perhaps it should be careful what it wishes for, considering lawmakers have introduced a bill that compels companies to break into a digital device if the government asks.

But there is an irony to this debate. Government once pushed industry to improve personal data privacy and security – now it’s the tech companies who are trumpeting better security. My own research has highlighted this interplay among businesses, users and regulators when comes to data security and privacy.

For consumers, who in coming years will see ever more of their lives take place in the digital realm, this heightened attention on data privacy is a very good thing.

The business case for better privacy grows
Not too long ago, everyone seemed to be bemoaning that companies aren’t doing enough to protect customer security and privacy.

The White House, for example, published a widely cited report saying that the lack of online privacy is essentially a market failure. It highlighted that users simply are in no position to control how their data are collected, analyzed and traded. Thus, a market-based approach to privacy will be ineffective, and regulations were necessary to force firms to to protect the security and privacy of consumer data.

The tide seems to have turned. Repeated stories on data breaches and privacy invasion, particularly from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, appears to have heightened users’ attention to security and privacy. Those two attributes have become important enough that companies are finding it profitable to advertise and promote them.

Apple, in particular, has highlighted the security of its products recently and reportedly is doubling down and plans to make it even harder for anyone to crack an iPhone.