Phone privacy left unresolved

It’s too bad the court case of the FBI versus Apple didn’t proceed. If it had, the issue of whether phone companies must aid police by releasing private information might be resolved.

FBI new app

The case won’t go to court because the FBI says that they don’t need the cooperation of Apple because they can hack into the phone after all. That presents another problem: if the FBI can hack into anyone’s phone, they should pass on the vulnerability to Apple so it can be fixed.

I’m not a defender of corporations but I was pleased when Apple’s Tim Cook stood up to the FBI. The FBI had obtained a court order requiring Apple to bypass the security lock on an iPhone belonging to a shooter in the San Bernardino terrorist attack.

“The founding fathers would be appalled,” said a righteous Tim Cook. That’s perhaps a little more dramatic than I would have put it but I agree with the sentiment. Phone providers hold our security in their hands. There is an implied, if not explicit, contract between phone companies and customers that privacy should not be breached except in an imminent threat.

Unlike the high-profile FBI case, there was barely a whisper when a similar case occurred in Canada in 2013. That’s when rumours of a video surfaced showing former mayor Rob Ford smoking crack cocaine. Police requested a search warrant for a phone belonging to Ford’s driver and it was granted.

When investigators discovered that the driver’s phone was locked with a password, they went back to the court for an “assistance order,” similar to the one in the U.S., that would require Apple to provide assistance in bypassing the password. And without a fuss, Apple did.

Both cases leave the privacy of phone users unresolved; in the Canadian case because the judge didn’t give reasons for his decision and in the U.S. case because it never went to trial.

The Canadian judge was following a trend common in the Dark Decade when invasion of privacy was virtually government policy. The federal Office of the Privacy Commissioner found that in 2014, police made 1.2 million requests to phone companies according to CBC.

Thankfully, things have changed in Canada when the Supreme Court ruled that police must obtain a search warrant before phone companies hand over personal information. Before the ruling, Police would approach companies with computer IP addresses that were linked to criminal activity or were suspicious, and receive the name, address or phone number of the person associated with that computer address.

The RCMP now hope that the Liberal government will write laws that will allow them access to private information without a warrant. “Kids could be exposed to the hands of a predator longer, before we’re able to intervene,” RCMP Assistant Commissioner Joe Oliver, told Global News.

While everyone wants to protect our kids, the police have a habit of collecting much more information than is necessary. That makes us vulnerable to mistakes. It would allow police to go on fishing expeditions: to gather search history, record of dissent and other personal facts and to store that information without anyone ever knowing about it.