Data privacy vs national security: US court order ignites the debate once more


On Tuesday, Apple posted a message online from its CEO, Tim Cook, to make its customers aware that the US Government had obtained a court order requiring the technology giant to assist the FBI in circumventing security software, to make it easier to unlock an iPhone without knowledge of the owner's security passcode. 

The iPhone prompting the court order belonged to one of those responsible for the shootings in San Bernardino last December and the FBI had sought the order in an attempt to gain access to data stored on it.

The online message from Apple sets out the reasons why it says it is opposed to the order. Those reasons highlight the ongoing tension between the protection of the right to privacy and efforts to maintain national security - a debate sparked by the leaks made by Edward Snowden in 2013.

It will be interesting to see how the Apple case plays out and, if the court order in the FBI's favour is ultimately upheld, what that may mean for surveillance laws and privacy in the UK, particularly as work on the draft Investigatory Powers Bill is still ongoing.

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The implications of the government’s demands are chilling. If the government can use the All Writs Act to make it easier to unlock your iPhone, it would have the power to reach into anyone’s device to capture their data. The government could extend this breach of privacy and demand that Apple build surveillance software to intercept your messages, access your health records or financial data, track your location, or even access your phone’s microphone or camera without your knowledge.