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Opinion: Republicans flat wrong about FBI attack on Apple

Republican candidates for president participate in a CNN-sponsored debate in Texas on Feb. 25. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

The FBI wants Apple to assist the government in weakening the security of the iPhone of dead San Bernardino terrorist Syed Farook. Juar qhat do the five men running for the Republican nomination for president think about that?

Disappointingly, but not surprisingly, not one of them believe there are any larger issues with what the FBI is asking.

Speaking at Thursday’s GOP debate in Texas, both Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz said Apple should cooperate, and they have accepted the claim that the Justice Department order is just for this one phone.

OPINION

But Apple has argued that what the Justice Department is asking — to weaken the level of security on the phone so that the FBI can attempt to brute force Farook’s passcode without risking the phone deleting its contents — is not a one-time request at all. Indeed, the feds want Apple’s help to access several other phones besides this one, according to the company.

There is absolutely no reason to think this is going to be a one-time request. To say so is to deliberately put on blinders about the bigger picture. Rubio even repeated the Department of Justice’s talking points that Apple only cares about its branding, concluding his response with the applause line, “Their brand is not superior to the national security of the United States.” That utterly ignores the potential national security issues that could be a result of Apple actually doing what the FBI asks.

Apple actually points it out in the introduction to their legal response to the judge’s order that they filed Friday:

“Since the dawn of the computer age, there have been malicious people dedicated to breaching security and stealing stored personal information. Indeed, the government itself falls victim to hackers, cyber-criminals, and foreign agents on a regular basis, most famously when foreign hackers breached Office of Personnel Management databases and gained access to personnel records, affecting over 22 million current and former federal workers and family members.”

Nobody during the GOP debate addressed the First Amendment argument that Apple is being compelled to “speak” by being ordered to write code requested by the government. Cruz raised the Fourth Amendment and said the FBI order is in full compliance, but this isn’t really a Fourth Amendment issue.

Nobody is arguing that the government doesn’t have the authority to access the data. But Apple isn’t the owner of the phone, the county of San Bernardino is. Apple is being drafted to do work for the government (work that has the potential to compromise everybody’s security).

Candidate John Kasich, the governor of Ohio, got creepy by fleshing out something he had mentioned about encryption in a previous debate: He thinks the president, Apple, and security folks should “sit down in a back room” and hash out all of our privacy issues without the public even knowing about it.

Mind you, there have been “back room” meetings on this all along and it became public only because Apple said no and the FBI had no way to compel them other than to go to the courts. The idea that the government should secretly be deciding how much cybersecurity Americans should be allowed is flat out bonkers, so we should all be glad Kasich is not a serious candidate.

Scott Shackford is an associate editor at Reason.com, where this column was posted.

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