iOS 8 'swung too far' toward privacy, says FBI director

iPhone 6 and iOS 8 are too secure, according to FBI director James Comey. Is that good or bad for consumers?

Adrees Latif/Reuters/File
A customer holds an iPhone 6 (R) and iPhone 6 Plus at the Apple store on Fifth Avenue after the phones went on sale in New York in this file photo taken September 19, 2014.

FBI director James Comey delivered stern remarks last Thursday regarding Apple’s recent release of iOS 8, an operating system with improved security including encryption. Apple boasts that its new security features will make it harder for government agencies to access information on people’s phones. But Mr. Comey worries that this new countermeasure “is an indication to us as a country and as a people” that the pendulum has "swung too far" toward privacy. 

With the release of Apple’s iOS 8 comes enhanced encryption. If your phone is encrypted, its contents are unreadable unless you have the passcode for that phone. (For additional information, see Monitor coverage of Apple's recent attempts to assuage consumer concerns about device security and privacy.)

With iOS 8, Apple no longer has back-door access to unlocking users’ phones. Thus, law enforcement officials won’t be able to compel Apple to hand over the keys and see the contents of a cellphone.

Comey notes the danger of this change. An inability to access the contents of an encrypted device might lead to law enforcement officials not being able to save a person in danger.

Some fellow law enforcement officials agree. In response to the privacy debate following Apple’s release of iOS 8, detectives in Chicago and Los Angeles have cited occasions where warranted access to the contents of a cellphone has helped solve cases, the Washington Post reports.

Others celebrate Apple’s enhanced encryption standards, not as a snub to law enforcement officials but as a much-needed security improvement. 

Jonathan Zdziarski, an iOS security expert and consultant to law enforcement, writes on his blog that Apple “has finally brought their operating system up to what most experts would consider ‘acceptable security’ ” with its release of iOS 8. In previous operating systems, Apple’s back-door access also gave hackers and criminals simpler ways of accessing information on a phone. This meant government agencies often developed physical hardware modifications for devices used by the military and public officials in order to make them more secure than regular versions. 

Apple’s iOS 8 isn’t the only operating system with encryption. A few days after Apple's announcement, Google revealed that its next generation of Android would include automatic encryption rather than a feature users had to opt in to. And Windows Phone 8.1, the newest operating system from Microsoft, has security features designed to make the phones more appealing to government agencies looking for better security in their mobile devices.

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