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by TM Arun Kumar

Why the Apple vs FBI case is relevant for India

Feb 24, 20163 mins
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The current Apple vs FBI case potentially has huge ramifications for security and privacy here in India and will affect our digital future

If you have been watching the Apple vs FBI case unfold in the American courts and thinking that the battle is happening half way across the world between an American tech giant and a local law enforcement agency and doesn’t impact India in any way, think again. It potentially has huge ramifications for security and privacy here in India and can affect our own digital future.

For those uninitiated, here’s a quick primer. Post the San Bernardino shootings that left 14 people dead, the FBI has raised its pitch to demand custom access to the iPhone used by the attackers. It’s specifically asking for a tool that will bypass a feature that deletes information on the phone after 10 failed password attempts. Of course, Apple is resisting in spite of a court warrant, which it is challenging.

But, the argument from both sides is not all that simple, though at first look it may seem so. While the FBI – and law enforcement agencies in general all over the world – is positioning its argument as a trade-off between security and privacy saying that a little bit of privacy will have to be sacrificed for better security, Apple – and with some tech companies weighing in on its behalf – argues that there can’t be a backdoor only for the good guys. Besides, it’s arguing that it is not just about this one phone as the FBI is saying, but will end up being a precedent, which can be cited for use in the future. And, there is always the concern of overreach or abuse by the law enforcement agencies.

As encryption technologies become stronger, law enforcement agencies are finding it harder to track and monitor communications, and hence the demand for custom access and backdoors. But the same custom access and backdoors can be exploited by the criminal networks and malicious hackers. So, the question of security vs privacy is not as simple as it’s made out to be.

All this is fine, but what’s that got to do with India and why should it impact India? Well, because similar concerns and arguments exist here as well. It may be recalled that a few years ago the Indian government literally arm-twisted Blackberry maker RIM to handover its encryption keys so that the Indian intelligence and security agencies could monitor all encrypted communications on Blackberry smartphones on a real-time basis.

So, it’s only a question of time before the Indian government starts coming up with similar requests of Apple and the likes. What will happen in such a scenario? How will Apple react? What are the possible consequences? And hence the Apple vs FBI battle assumes significance for India.

If, for instance, the FBI is able to force Apple to provide it access or create a backdoor, can Apple legitimately refuse similar access to Indian security agencies without being accused of having double standards and in the process creating a PR nightmare for itself? However, if on the other hand the FBI is unable to force Apple to accede to its request, Apple can legitimately deny the request of the Indian government and be lauded for it.

Look at the case this way and it becomes clear why this has significant ramifications for India.