Apple, WhatsApp Cases Focus on Law Enforcement vs. Privacy

Although President Obama finally stated that he sides with the Justice Department in the ongoing battles between law enforcement and Apple over encryption of the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone, U.S. citizens aren’t so sure. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey revealed that 47 percent of Americans believe Apple shouldn’t cooperate with law enforcement. The government is not just facing a difficult battle with Apple but another, even more crucial one with Facebook’s WhatsApp popular messaging application.

The New York Times, which cited the above survey, also reports that a 2014 Pew Research poll found more than 90 percent of consumers surveyed “felt that [they] had lost control over how their personal information was collected and used by companies.” With the growth of Internet of Things, says NYT, people are beginning to realize that data privacy doesn’t simply apply to smartphones but smart TVs, Google cars and dozens of upcoming products.

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“Everyone gets at a really visceral level that you have a lot of really personal stuff on this device and if it gets stolen it’s really bad,” said Electronic Frontier Foundation executive director Cindy Cohn. “They know that the same forces that work at trying to get access to sensitive stuff in the cloud are also at work attacking the phones.”

Although officials apparently hoped a case involving a terrorist’s iPhone would gain wide public support, many now believe that the FBI and the Justice Department made “a major strategic error” by bringing the case to the public’s attention.

The Justice Department is also waging another related battle with WhatsApp, Facebook’s popular global messaging application, says NYT. The company added encryption to its messages and phone calls, in part paid for by the U.S. government, which ponied up $2.2 million to help develop WhatsApp’s encryption backbone, Open Whisper Systems. The idea then was to help those communicating all over the world avoid government surveillance.

Now that very encryption code has prevented the Justice Department from exercising a wiretap order in an ongoing criminal investigation unrelated to terrorism. Some experts believe the case, which focuses on how out-of-date the wiretap laws are, will be more significant in the long run than the one involving Apple.

Senior officials at the FBI and the Justice Department hope that Congress will take the lead in updating wiretap laws, but the White House has not pursued new legislation. In the meantime, electronic privacy advocates and government officials are trading accusations on whether or not the FBI and Justice Department are, as Electronic Frontier chief computer scientist Peter Eckersley says, “just choosing the exact circumstances to pick the fight that looks the best for them.”

But no one is arguing with the assessment of ACLU technology analyst Chris Soghoian of what will happen if the government forces WhatsApp and its ilk to remove encryption. “That would be like going to nuclear war with Silicon Valley,” he said.