Apple vs. Police Authorities; A Cold War Against iPhone’s Anti-Snooping Patent

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Apple Anti-Snooping Paten
Photo By: Matt Madd/Flickr

To protect its customers from hackers and illegal surveillance, Apple is developing an anti-snooping technology that would impede police and other authorities to track mobile phone users’ locations, personal information, and messages. With its new plan, the iPhone maker will be hindering the so-called ‘Stingray’ box which is believed to mimic phone masts and can be used to track phone users’ locations and eavesdrop on phone calls.

Stingray boxes show that even the hardest and most prominent of phones in the country today is not safe from unwanted tailings and unlawful observation.

A study reveals that police forces around the UK have been using Stingrays or also known as ‘IMSI catchers.’ Today, even US authorities and investigatory offices are also getting hooked on these boxes, making it as tools to prosecute criminals and lawbreakers. However, these officers did not confirm when asked to reveal the extent of their use.

How do these devices collect data from iPhones and other smartphones?

These devices pretended to be mobile phone towers to trick mobile phones and eventually connect to them. It works by intercepting the phone’s signal, and as a result, they can pinpoint a phone’s location or sneak on messages, calls, and even have the power to edit messages as it gets transmitted.

Is this a threat to personal data information and security?

Apple claimed that the devices are becoming controversial and pose a serious threat to personal data of mobile phone users. It collects data from thousands of other phones, at the same time, can also be used by hackers for blackmailing and for personal purposes.

Apple’s action to end the use of these devices

A patent filed by Apple shows a proposal to apply end-to-end encryption to a phone’s unique ID, known as a mobile subscriber identification number as it travels across the network. As explained by the company itself, through using encryption similar to that applied in messaging apps such as WhatsApp, it would scramble the ID until it is deciphered when it reaches its destination. This means that a device would be safe from any instances of ‘eavesdropping’ against stingray boxes, thus, hiding a user’s identity and ensures that the encryption techniques ‘protect [the] subscriber’s identity in messages communicated between a wireless device and a cellular wireless network.’

Also, this plan also protects any attempts at iPhone surveillance by the police or any other authority. The patent, which is available online on the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) website, has the name ‘Subscriber Identity Privacy Protection.’

However, the encryption feature would not entirely mask the contents of the messages but would make it harder to trace which device they came from and who is sending or receiving it.

Apple versus Police and Security Services

As Apple continues to make another invention that would save a lot of people from data hackers, controversies and oppositions are also starting to surface. The announcement of creating an Anti-snooping technology angered police and security services who claimed that encryption has allowed criminals to escape detection and terrorists to ploy an attack.

However, police forces and authorities should know that using IMSI catchers on its operations can mean one thing; breaching of data privacy act which curtails the right of every individual to be protected from unlawful surveillance. If the use of Stingray boxes is for criminal detection purposes only, why is it that records have shown that the Metropolitan police spent more than one million pounds on IMSI catchers since 2015 with other forces also spending thousands of pounds. Is this the only way to catch a criminal? Admittedly, these officers have trained enough not solely to depend on these devices.

Or, for some apparent reason, is it indeed for detection purposes or just a way to show its superiority and to justify that they can do anything including snooping on an individual’s activity?

The company has fought countless battles against the FBI over Apple’s refusal to unlock an iPhone owned by an alleged terrorist who killed 14 people at the Inland Regional Centre in California last December 2015. The investigative forces reiterated that their purpose of using such devices is to ‘protect the country’ from any threat that could harm the country and its people. But, isn’t Apple’s role as a phone developer to keep its customers safe from illegal hackers and surveillance?

This argument will lead to one thing or another, but the truth is that both sides have something to defend. Privacy campaigners are defending Apple; which is now fighting a global pressure to make it easier for law enforcement agencies to access data from an encrypted iPhone.

The thing is, using stingrays boxes can be exploited by hackers too to access mobile user’s data, thus, endangering the privacy of an individual. As officers, they should have known that such action is against the law and subject to imprisonment unless otherwise the ‘person’ being observed to proves to be a threat to national security. If to protect a country means compromising the privacy of another individual, then it is not defending at all.

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