Commentary

Who wants a backdoor into their iPhone?

It would be like giving govts a house key to walk in and out of your home any time

Last week, Apple published a rare open letter by chief executive Tim Cook about why the Cupertino tech giant is opposing a court order to help the police break into an iPhone 5c used by one of the San Bernardino shooters.

"This moment calls for public discussion, and we want our customers and people around the country to understand what is at stake," said Mr Cook in the letter.

The United States government defended the court order by saying it is limited only to that particular iPhone. However, the software to unlock that iPhone, which the US government wants Apple to create, has the potential to be used to unlock any iPhone.

Mr Cook noted that "while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control".

The incident has created a storm of debates, with technology vendors, politicians, journalists, netizens and others weighing in on the matter.

I am no legal expert, but what I understand is that, if Apple sets a precedent by agreeing, it could be ammunition for the US government to do the same with other tech companies whenever it deems necessary.

Consequently, tech firms might be asked to do the same by other law enforcement agencies around the world.

Moreover, if the software were to fall into the wrong hands, such as terrorist groups and criminal organisations, the ramifications could well outweigh the truth unearthed in this particular investigation.

Google chief executive Sundar Pichai and WhatsApp founder Jan Koum have voiced their support for Apple. So have Microsoft, Twitter, Facebook, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Amnesty International.

While I am siding with Apple in this case, I can see why many aren't. Some felt it was a publicity stunt when Apple could just have filed an appeal, while others felt Apple was being unpatriotic.

There are probably as many people who oppose Apple's stance as there are who support it. Twitter users are divided into two camps with hashtags of #thankyouapple and #boycottapple.

Of course, Apple's actions might be self-serving, since it is not nice to be seen selling devices that governments can easily unlock. Wired's Klint Finley saw Apple's open letter as a great marketing campaign.

Digital news outlet Quartz has questioned why Apple remained silent over China's security checks on its iPhones, but openly defied the US government.

To me, the point of the US court order is like you being asked to give your house key to the authorities for safekeeping.

It might sound all right and even reassuring. But it also means the authorities could enter and leave your house any time, unnoticed.

Why would anyone want that?

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 24, 2016, with the headline 'Who wants a backdoor into their iPhone?'. Print Edition | Subscribe