TAMPA — In a battle pitting privacy rights against national security, protesters were expected to hold rallies in front of Apple stores across the country Tuesday. The biggest protests were set for New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington D.C.
The protest planned for Tampa, however, fizzled out.
The only ones who showed up outside the Apple store at International Plaza where the mall security guards who seemed intent on escorting any protestors from the premises.
The protest wasn't aimed at Apple, however, but the FBI. The federal agency has obtained a court order that demands Apple make it easier to unlock an encrypted iPhone used by one of the shooters in the San Bernardino terrorist attack, Syed Farook. Apple is resisting the court's order.
National Internet rights group Fight for the Future organized the protests, which they say were set to be held in more than 50 cities in the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany starting at 5:30 p.m. local time. The biggest protest, according to organizers, was set to be in front of FBI headquarters in the J. Edgar Hoover Building in Washington D.C.
"This is about a lot more than just one phone, it's a lot more than just about Apple," said the group's national campaign director Evan Greer.
The FBI wants Apple to create special software that would allow agents to repeatedly try different pass codes to enter the phone. That's because iPhones are designed to self-erase data after 10 incorrect tries.
The protestors opposing the court order say that to create that software would leave a "back door" that would compromise the security of millions of iPhone users worldwide. The group also says the FBI is exploiting a tragedy to improve its surveillance abilities.
Many cyber security experts agree, calling the case uncharted territory that could start what they consider a troubling precedent.
"It's being framed as Apple is protecting, or not supporting, an investigation of a known terrorist and it's just about one phone," said Derek Harvey, a University of South Florida professor and cyber security consultant. "There's a larger social issue here because once you unlock the phone, and you show there are back doors to the phones, then the government, foreign governments, hackers have, in theory, access to that data."
FBI agents want to know what's on Farook's government-issued iPhone 5C. He, along with his wife, killed 14 in a shooting spree in December. The FBI says Apple is exaggerating the risks as a marketing ploy to sell more phones.
Apple advocates don't think so. Experts say once Apple creates the software to "break" the phone, that other countries will ask for it do be done for them, too.
Apple CEO Tim Cook has said creating what would essentially be a master key that could later be duplicated threatens consumers' security.
Greer said a goal of the rallies is to educate people in a setting they're familiar with: their neighborhood Apple store.
"It's accessible to people, a lot of people who have never been to protest before," he said.
He described it as a grass-roots movement. And that may be the kind of support the company needs right now, said University at Buffalo law professor Mark Bartholomew.
A recent Pew Research Center survey shows 51 percent of Americans want Apple to unlock the phone.
"Consumers are figuring out where they fall on the line," Bartholomew said. "More largely, people are figuring out, 'What is my privacy worth?'"
A protest was also scheduled to take place at the Apple store in Westfield Brandon, but it was not known if anyone showed up there, either.