RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
In a ruling that is unprecedented, a federal judge here in California has ordered Apple to help unlock a phone used by one of the shooters in the San Bernardino attack. Apple's CEO Tim Cook has vowed to resist the judge's order, which puts digital privacy up against national security interests. Here to discuss that clash with us is Mark Rotenberg. He heads the Electronic Privacy Information Center. He's a privacy advocate concerned that the judge's ruling could have far-reaching consequences beyond this one phone. Good morning.
MARK ROTENBERG: Good morning.
MONTAGNE: Just briefly, what exactly is the court ordering Apple to do?
ROTENBERG: Well, it appears that the magistrate judge wants Apple to design the iPhone so that there's a backdoor access by law enforcement to the contents, the digital data on the phone. And that's the order that Tim Cook is resisting.
MONTAGNE: Now, you're saying design the iPhone. But are they not speaking about this individual phone and basically bypassing its auto-erase?
ROTENBERG: Well, they're actually doing both simultaneously. In other words, the FBI has the phone in its possession. And they want access to the data. But the phone is designed in such a way so that Apple actually can't get that access. So the implication of the ruling, if Apple complies, is that going forward, iPhones would need to be designed with this type of access. We understand that Apple has actually cooperated with law enforcement in the investigation right up till this point where the judge has said in effect, we now need the backdoor access to the phone which is not currently part of the phone's design.
MONTAGNE: So Apple is arguing that harm will come of this. What exactly would that be?
ROTENBERG: Well, they're thinking about their hundreds of millions of users and, frankly, the implications of the government being able to compel a service provider to design a technology to enable access to personal information. Nobody really disputes that if a company's in possession of evidence they should, with proper legal authority, turn it over to the government. The question is whether companies should be compelled to design their technology for future investigations so that evidence is available. And that's what Apple and other companies have been resisting. And I think they've done this, of course, because the implications for online privacy are staggering, as well as the implications for the policies that might be adopted by countries, you know, outside of the U.S. China, for example, I'm sure would love a similar decryption capability.
MONTAGNE: Although this, of course, is all in the interest of national security, which - the government argues that right now, these phones can go dark.
ROTENBERG: Well, the national security concerns are real. And I don't think there's any dispute about the need to address them. The question is how best to address them. In other words, if by addressing the national security concerns, you make U.S. Internet users and iPhone customers more vulnerable to criminal attack or to national security vulnerabilities, you actually haven't solved the problem. You've created a new problem. And this is the reason that so many technology experts and privacy experts have said to the government, we're not unsympathetic to the concern. But we actually believe that if you weaken communications technology, you leave U.S. Internet users more exposed. And that's where the debate is today.
MONTAGNE: All right, well, we'll have to leave it at that. Thanks very much.
ROTENBERG: Nice speaking with you.
MONTAGNE: Mark Rotenberg teaches privacy law at Georgetown University Law Center.
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