Modern field guide to security and privacy

What presidential candidates are saying about the Apple v. FBI debate

Republican candidates are lockstep in their views that Apple should abide by a court order and help the FBI bypass the security features on an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters.

Randall Hill/Reuters
Donald Trump at a rally in Sumter, S.C., on Feb. 17.

It didn't take long for Republican presidential candidates to weigh in on the showdown between Apple and the FBI over an iPhone linked to the San Bernardino, Calif., terrorist attack. 

Donald Trump quickly dismissed Tim Cook after the Apple CEO pledged to fight a US court's ruling that the company should help the FBI get around built-in security features on the iPhone used by Syed Rizwan Farook, who was slain by police after the December attack that left 14 people dead. 

"I agree 100 percent with the courts," Mr. Trump said on "Fox and Friends" Wednesday. "This is a case that certainly we should be able to get into the phone ... . And we should find out what happened, why it happened. And maybe there's other people involved and we have to do that."

On Tuesday, a magistrate judge in Riverside, Calif.,ordered the tech company to write new software to make it easier for federal agents to access the seized phone’s data. However, Mr. Cook insisted that building a new, less secure version of the iPhone operating system would create a dangerous "backdoor" into his products – and would have far-reaching repercussions for all his consumers' security and privacy

At a town hall meeting on Wednesday in Greenville, S.C., Trump's rivals were less critical of Mr. Cook, and appeared to sympathize with his position as the head of a global tech company that has prioritized security and privacy for all of its users. 

"Apple has a serious argument that they should not be forced to put a backdoor in every cellphone everyone has," said Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, echoing Cook's concerns that complying with the court would create a "backdoor" into Apple's encryption that others could exploit.

But in this case, said Senator Cruz, the FBI's interests override Apple's worries about security.

"This concerns the phone of one of the San Bernardino [terrorists], and for law enforcement to get a judicial search order, that's consistent with the Fourth Amendment,” said Cruz.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio also called on Apple to follow the court's decision, but did express concerns that doing so could create problems for millions of other iPhone users.

“If you create a backdoor, there is a very reasonable possibility that a criminal gang could figure out what the backdoor is," Mr. Rubio said. “We're going to have to work with the tech industry to figure out a way forward on encryption that allows us some capability to access information – especially in an emergency circumstances.”

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Ohio Gov. John Kasich said, "I don't think it's an example of government overreach to say that, you know, we had terrorists here on our soil and we've got to understand more detail about who they may have been communicating with."

When the Democratic candidates were asked to weigh in on the matter at a town hall meeting in Las Vegas on Thursday, neither former secretary of State Hillary Clinton nor Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders appeared to take sides between Apple and the FBI.  

"Obviously Apple and the other tech companies are concerned about this," Ms. Clinton said. "But as smart as we are, there's got to be some way on a very specific basis we could try to help get information around crimes and terrorism.

Clinton's opponent also did not choose between Apple and the FBI. "I'm on both," Mr. Sanders said, when asked which side he favored. "But count me in as somebody who is a very strong civil libertarian, who believes that we can fight terrorism without undermining our constitutional rights and our privacy rights."

While the iPhone court order has propelled the privacy versus security debate into the national spotlight, this isn't the first time the candidates have sounded off on the issue of encryption or terrorists' use of American technology products and social media.

Those topics reached the national stage when reports surfaced that Islamic State attackers may have used encryption products to plot the Paris attacks and one of the San Bernardino shooters pledged support for the radical Islamists on Facebook.

While questions remain about the attackers’ use of secure technology and social media in both cases, they nonetheless sparked a national debate about what American technology companies should do to help the US government thwart terrorism. 

At a debate in December, Trump proposed shutting down the parts of the Internet to keep the Islamic State off of social media. Later in that debate, Kasich said, “There is a big problem, it’s called encryption."

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