Apple and the FBI have captured the public’s attention by battling over unlocking the San Bernardino shooter’s phone, but this is about more than one terrorist attack. This is a power struggle over the future of digital communication.
Encryption seems opaque and impossibly complex, and that’s the point. Even though it has only recently entered the popular lexicon, humans have been using encryption to keep secrets hidden since ancient Greece.
Now it’s an essential component to everyone’s electronic communication, and the United States security apparatus is essentially demanding unilateral power over its on/off switch.
A judge ordered Apple to provide “reasonable technical assistance” to help the FBI unlock San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook’s iPhone 5c, which seems like a reasonable request.
After all, it has the word reasonable in it.
But like many vague government directives, its request is far from the definition of the word it uses. What the FBI really wants Apple to do can best be explained by the world’s most notorious hacker.
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) February 17, 2016
Granted, there are so many layers to the Snowden story that you have to take everything he says with infinite grains of salt, but the man clearly knows his tech.
He’s pretty much stuck where he is for the rest of his life, so it’s hard to see how criticizing the FBI benefits him in any way (unless you believe that he’s a Russian operative, but that’s a discussion for another day).
This isn’t just about hacking into this one phone. The FBI wants Apple to build them a cyber weapon that bypasses encryption on iPhones around the world.
Encryption has been a central debate in the intelligence community for quite some time, and lines have clearly been drawn between civil cabinets and law enforcement, as the Obama administration has offered conflicting messages on this topic.
Leslie Caldwell, the head of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division alluded to the need to bypass encryption at a technology policy conference earlier this year:
“The Department of Justice is completely committed to seeking and obtaining judicial authorization for electronic evidence collection in all appropriate circumstances. But once that authorization is obtained, we need to be able to act on it if we are to keep our communities safe and our country secure.”
Ironically enough, the very next person to speak at that conference was another top Obama official at the Federal Trade Commission, Terrell McSweeny, and he offered a diametrically opposite opinion:
“As a person charged with thinking about consumer protection, I deeply worry about things like mandatory backdoors. We need to be very mindful of consumer data security, and we should be very, very careful about anything that undermines that data security.”
James Comey, the director of the FBI, is one of the chief architects of the case against encryption, as he laid out in his famous 2014 “going dark” speech:
And if the challenges of real-time interception threaten to leave us in the dark, encryption threatens to lead all of us to a very dark place.
You can see this schism in on the campaign trail too. Here’s the child of the former head of the CIA Jeb Bush’s take:
“If you create encryption, it makes it harder for the American government to do its job — while protecting civil liberties — to make sure that evildoers aren’t in our midst. We need to find a new arrangement with Silicon Valley in this regard because I think this is a very dangerous kind of situation.”
Compare that to former HP CEO/former Presidential candidate/future Fox News analyst Carly Fiorina:
“I certainly support that we need to tear down cyber walls, not on a mass basis, but on a targeted basis. I do not believe that we need to wholesale destroy every American citizen’s privacy in order to go after those that we know are suspect or are already a problem. But yes, there is more collaboration required.”
So why is the private sector so concerned with protecting encryption? Apple’s stance doesn’t seem to be based on firm principle since they have unlocked iPhones for the feds at least 70 times before.
This is a high-profile case, so what Apple does or does not do will be scrutinized infinitely more than those 70 instances combined, and the public has never been more sensitive to the security state than it is right now.
Apple doesn’t want to hurt their brand. Plus, what the FBI is demanding is unprecedented. They’re ordering Apple to build a backdoor into its seminal product.
That’s not something that can only be controlled by one party; once a backdoor exists, anyone with the wherewithal can access it.
The second the FBI uses this new software to bypass encryption, the race will be on to reverse engineer it, and if/when this type of technology falls into the wrong hands, a huge chunk of mankind’s digital infrastructure would be compromised (not to mention the horrors authoritarian regimes around the world would inflict on their people with this weapon).
Given that our security state already looks like a Orwellian fever dream, we should heed President Dwight Eisenhower’s prescient warning from his farewell address and support Apple in this fight:
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.”
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Cover Photo Credit: Sean MacEntee/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)