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Unlocking Shooter's Phone Is Software's Equivalent Of Cancer, Apple Says


The software equivalent of cancer - that is how Apple CEO Tim Cook is describing code the government wants Apple to write so the FBI can unlock the iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino terrorists.


TIM COOK: What is at stake here is can the government compel Apple to write software that we believe would make hundreds of millions of customers vulnerable around the world, including the U.S., and also trample civil liberties that are at the basic foundation of what this country was made on?

GREENE: That is Apple CEO Tim Cook in an interview on ABC News' "World News Tonight With David Muir" last night. This standoff between Apple and the government continues to escalate, and it's happening very publicly. Here now to discuss why tensions are running so high is NPR tech reporter Aarti Shahani. She's at a big tech conference in Barcelona right now, and she's on the line. Aarti, good morning.


GREENE: So public opinion, as we have reported, is so divided on this case. But it does not sound like Tim Cook is giving any ground at all here.

SHAHANI: No, not at all. And it's really breathtaking to watch the responses inside the industry. You know, as you mentioned, right now I'm in Barcelona at this huge tech conference. And people are super divided on Cook's stance. For some, he's a hero. And for other, he's just an American businessman who doesn't want to be subject to regulation. And, you know, I remember back in San Francisco earlier this month, I was at a smaller cybersecurity gathering organized by Google. And people there were saying that they think the FBI is going to stop banging the drum on backdoors. You know, then the FBI went after Apple.

GREENE: But what the FBI is doing, Aarti, I mean, is talking about one phone, right? So, I mean, can you explain why Tim Cook is using such dramatic language and talking about how unlocking this one phone will make all Apple customers this vulnerable?

SHAHANI: Yeah, let's take an analogy that's been floating around. Say the iPhone is a safe in a bank.


SHAHANI: So, you know, police want to get into the safe - see if there's drugs there or something. So they ask the bank to help crack the combo lock or, you know, give them unlimited time to crack it themselves. Well, here's where that analogy falls apart. In the physical world, you're just cracking the combo for a specific safe in a specific bank. When that safe is digital, when it's software inside an iPhone, it's code that's shared by every single safe - every iPhone. So when you figure out how to crack that code, you've created a master key. And yeah, you know, you can say we're just going to use it this one time. But you can't control if that really happens or if it falls into the wrong hands.

GREENE: Tim Cook basically saying, you create this master key, and you can say all you want that you're going to be able to hide it, but someone might get their hands on it.

SHAHANI: Right, exactly.

GREENE: Sound like a legitimate argument. But what's the other side say?

SHAHANI: You know, he's right about the way encryption works. That's just factually correct. But when he says that there is no precedent, you know, that's not really true. Cook wrote in that letter to customers that day the California court decision came out, he said, quote, "we can find no precedent for an American company being forced to expose its customers to a greater risk of attack." You know, well, back in the 1990s, the company Microsoft wanted to use a certain kind of strong encryption. But U.S. regulators said no; if you want to sell overseas, we think your software is so strong it's basically a weapon, and we're going to ban you from exporting that weapon. So Microsoft had to basically weaken its product so they could enter into foreign markets. So that definitely impacted privacy and exposed customers to greater risk.

GREENE: OK, so debate for precedent there is one part of this. How does this get resolved? You have this deadline looming tomorrow for Apple to respond to this court order.

SHAHANI: That's right. They have to respond by tomorrow. And, you know, they'll make their legal case. But Cook also suggested last night that maybe there's another way to address the situation.


COOK: This is not what should be happening in America. If there should be a law that compels us to do it, it should be passed out in the open, and the people of America should get a voice in that. The right place for that debate to occur is in Congress.

GREENE: OK, so he basically wants a different branch of government to handle this. He wants this decided in Congress, where he and FBI Director James Comey are both scheduled to testify next week. I mean, it sounds like quite a showdown.

SHAHANI: Yeah, there will be fireworks.

GREENE: All right, that's NPR tech reporter Aarti Shahani reporting for us in Barcelona, where she is attending a big tech conference. Aarti, thanks.

SHAHANI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Aarti Shahani is a correspondent for NPR. Based in Silicon Valley, she covers the biggest companies on earth. She is also an author. Her first book, Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares (out Oct. 1, 2019), is about the extreme ups and downs her family encountered as immigrants in the U.S. Before journalism, Shahani was a community organizer in her native New York City, helping prisoners and families facing deportation. Even if it looks like she keeps changing careers, she's always doing the same thing: telling stories that matter.