On February 16, the CEO of Apple, Tim Cook, publicly defied a court order from US Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym which called for the popular technology company to create a "master key" to unlock an encrypted iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino killers- Sahed Farook. From the Federal Bureau of Investigation's perspective (FBI), the growing popularity amongst technology companies to encrypt their hardware and software puts the entire nation at risk from a terrorist attack. Encryption of software like communication apps or hardware like the iPhone, prevents anyone outside of the user and the person they're communicating with from accessing messages sent between the two parties. This practice has grown in popularity ever since NSA whistleblower and former CIA worker, Edward Snowden, unveiled a US government spy program formulated in 2007 and outlined collusion between the NSA, FBI, and some of the top US technology companies. The program, named PRISM, led many top technology companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple to publicly deny sacrificing their users' online security. Furthermore, encryption became the preferred way to assure users of applications through Facebook, Apple, or Google that their private conversations would remain private and inaccessible from the companies themselves or any other outside entity like the Federal Government.
With the recent terrorist attacks in the US and France, top security officials argue that encryption puts the entire country at risk for another attack as they're unable to link conversations between suspected terrorists within the US and terrorist organizations overseas. While the government has attempted to assure Apple that an encryption key would only be used in this special case, Tim Cook is not convinced. In a letter publically released on Wednesday Cook said, "The government suggests this tool could only be used once, on one phone. But that's simply not true. Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices. In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks; from restaurants and banks to stores and homes. No reasonable person would find that acceptable." As this particular instance brings the issue of encryption back to the forefront of American debate, many citizens are wondering which applications they use offer the best security and what does the future hold for encryption?
Which Message Applications offer the Most Security and Privacy?
Many of the top message-based applications commonly utilized through Smartphones use different methods to encrypt their customers' conversations while some don't offer any encryption at all. The iPhone's iMessages application offers end-to-end encryption. In other words, the messages sent between you and the person you're texting can only be read and retrieved through direct access to the respective iPhones being used. However, text messages that are backed up on the iCloud are stored on Apple's servers which could be handed over to law enforcement if a proper warrant was issued. WhatsApp, a popular messaging application for both iPhone and Android users, also offers end-to-end encryption.
On the other side of the spectrum, Facebook Messenger and Instagram encrypt messages as they're travelling between devices but these messages are stored within Facebook's servers so theoretically they could be accessed by Facebook if a law enforcement body asked them via warrant to do so. Google, extends encryption beyond individual users' devices to their own company servers. However, Google also has an encryption key to access this information if needed or requested through a proper warrant by law enforcement. Kik and Snapchat differ from other messaging applications as the messages sent between users are automatically deleted after being received and opened by the person receiving the message. While Kik deletes messages from their servers immediately after a message has been delivered, Snapchat's servers hold onto unopened messages for 30 days before they're deleted. This means that if your message was not opened by the person you sent it to, then it could be accessed by Snapchat through an encryption key if required to do so by law.
Will your Privacy continue to be protected through Encryption in the Future?
While the debate over encryption heats up, a solution that will satisfy both technology companies like Apple and security agencies like the FBI and the NSA seems unlikely. Technology giants and privacy advocates worry that a loss for Apple against the FBI in regards to this encryption case could pave the way for authoritarian governments in countries like Russia and China to demand similar access. US Senator Ron Wyden emphasized this point in the Guardian when he said, "This move by the FBI could snowball around the world. Why in the world would our government want to give repressive regimes in Russia and China a blueprint for forcing American companies to create a backdoor?"
On the other hand, government security agencies are continuing to argue that allowing technology companies to continue to encrypt their devices and software without a way to access this information if lawfully requested to do so, will put the US and the rest of the World at risk. The NSA Director, Michael Rogers, went so far as to say the Paris shootings that occurred in November of 2015 would not have happened if not for encrypted communications.
The FBI is resting its case against Apple on a 234 year-old law, the All Writs Act in 1789, which was instituted with the foundation of federal court system and enables judges to essentially ensure that their rulings are enforced in special cases where there isn't an existing law to adhere to. However, Apple has pointed out a broad provision within this writ that states a third party like Apple is exempt from assisting the government if it can prove that doing so will be "unreasonably burdensome". In all likelihood, Apple's refusal to create an encryption key to open up Syed Farook's iPhone will probably be appealed to a higher court and could possibly make its way to the Supreme Court. Until then, privacy advocates and those worried about national security will eagerly await a final decision.