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Journalist Gets Hacked While Writing Apple-FBI Story

"That’s why this story is so important to everyone," says hacker, who was a fellow passenger on his flight.

[Photo: Flickr user Jonathan Scott Chinn]

On a recent American Airlines flight from Dallas to Raleigh, journalist Steven Petrow decided to get some work done on a story he was writing about the potential impact on ordinary Americans of the battle between Apple and the FBI over creating a tool that will allow the FBI to access virtually any iPhone. The feud has divided the public, lawmakers, and tech CEOs over a person’s right to privacy versus the need for national security. The FBI says it needs a backdoor into the iPhone so it can extract data from terrorists’ iPhones, while Apple says creating a backdoor would leave everyone open to increased attacks from hackers.

When the flight took off, Petrow’s stance on the matter was "I don’t really need to worry about online privacy," he writes for USA Today. "I’ve got nothing to hide. And who would want to know what I’m up to, anyway?" But by the time Petrow landed, he found out "in a chillingly personal way" just how much the outcome of the Apple-FBI battle matters to everyone. That’s because Petrow had been hacked mid-flight.

Petrow logged in to the Gogo in-flight Internet connection to read and send emails to sources for his story. As the plane landed in Raleigh and Petrow got up to disembark, a passenger behind him revealed that he knew Petrow was a journalist and had just been working on the Apple-FBI story. The passenger even recited an email Petrow had received from a security expert back to him almost verbatim. This passenger knew all this information, he revealed, because he had hacked Petrow’s computer in-flight, as well as the computing devices of almost every other passenger on the plane.

"That’s how I know you’re interested in the Apple story," the hacker said. "Imagine if you had been doing a financial transaction. What if you were making a date to see a whore?"

The fact that Petrow was hacked mid-flight isn’t so shocking. It’s easy to get hacked on a public Wi-Fi network like Gogo. What was most shocking to Petrow was how this in-flight hacking clarified his stance on the Apple-FBI battle.

"My mind raced: What about my health records? My legal documents? My Facebook messages? That’s why this story is so important to everyone. It’s about everyone’s privacy," he writes. "I may have been wearing my jacket, but I felt as exposed as if I’d been stark naked."

Now just imagine what would happen if a backdoor into an iPhone was as easy to get through as the backdoor on a public Wi-Fi network.

"For me, I felt as though the stranger on the plane had robbed me of my privacy—as was explicitly his intent. He took the decision of what to share out of my hands."

"I realize now it's not that I have things that I need to hide but it is things that I expect to be kept private," Petrow said in a video speaking about the experience, "and it was disturbing and I have to say I’ve learned quite a bit."

Related: The History of Apple (in Under 3 Minutes)

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