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Richard Burr weighs in on Apple backdoor

Republican North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr — up for re-election this year — spoke out against Apple Inc., writing in an opinion editorial for USA Today that Apple should assist law enforcement's efforts to unlock an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters.

In the editorial, Burr said the phone belongs to San Bernardino county, which consented to the search. Since the county isn't demanding decryption, Apple is not required to provide a backdoor and should not resist further law enforcement efforts, he said. 

Becca Watkins, Burr's spokesperson, said Burr was inspired to weigh in on the Apple-FBI debate by Apple's past cooperation with law enforcement. 

“Apple has previously said that they would work with the U.S. government on these types of requests,” she said. “But then once they came out … and said they would not be doing so is what made Senator Burr more interested in restating his views.”

She said Burr is not seeking criminal penalties for companies who don’t comply with these requests at this time, but he hopes to have finalized encryption legislation in the coming weeks.

Tori Ekstrand, a journalism professor at UNC, said it’s important to understand the context of the issue.

“I think one of the distinctions that gets lost on the public is the fact that Apple complies with these types of orders on a regular basis,” she said. “They are not looking to obstruct justice, generally speaking.”

Ekstrand said it is a company’s obligation to consider any court order, especially when it involves terrorism or any type of criminal activity, but she understands where Apple is coming from.

“What they’re saying is not, ‘You can’t break in’ — what they’re saying is, ‘We’re not going to help you do that because we have serious concerns about if we write that program who else might use it or demand from us that program,'" she said.

Some wonder if there is a middle ground on which Apple’s concerns can be protected, but the government’s interest can still be served. But Paul Jones, a clinical professor in the UNC School of Media and Journalism, said there isn’t.

“For good cryptography to work, there can’t be back-doors out there,” he said. “You cannot keep that a secret, it’s too powerful.”

He said while law enforcement officers would like every tool they can get to solve these hard cases, this case is not about one phone. There are many cases concerning phone security, and this is the one that’s been brought to the forefront.

“Prosecutors like to pick a case that they can get public support or jury support on,” he said.

If Apple creates a backdoor it becomes open to exploitation by other people, which Jones said is dangerous to civil liberties.

“Phones are not phones. Phones are a personal repositories of so much of who we are,” he said. “You need a space to be a person, a person that society might not always like. We need that to be people, we need that to be citizens.”

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