If you recall Howard Beale’s monologue from the movie Network, then I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. And now, Tim Cook is joining that chorus line. Earlier today, the Apple CEO cast himself as the lead industry defender of strong encryption. In an open letter to Apple customers released this morning, Cook made it clear that his company will refuse to comply with a recent court ruling that would have mandated that the company assist the FBI in unlocking an iPhone used by Syed Farook, one of the San Bernardino shooters.
Cook’s strong stand has garnered a great deal of support from a wide swath of organizations committed to the preservation (and restoration) of American civil liberties. And rightly so. As the ongoing encryption debate has shown, the issue of government surveillance and diminished due process in the post-9/11 world has united a wide range of civil libertarians from across the political spectrum.
Kevin Bankston, director of the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation said: “This isn’t just about one iPhone, it’s about all of our software and all of our digital devices … If this precedent gets set, it will spell digital disaster for the trustworthiness of everyone’s computers and mobile phones.” The key takeaway? If the court can compel Apple to rewrite code to allow law enforcement to access this iPhone, it can certainly compel other software and hardware providers to do the same.
It is certainly true that the government needs to be able to access evidence, which is the reason that there are compulsory procedures for such activities. The real issue here is whether intentionally weakening the security of an iPhone (or any hardware device) constitutes “reasonable technical assistance.”
I’ll leave that analysis to the lawyers.
From a technical standpoint, although this doesn’t technically constitute a mandatory backdoor, there are many reasons to be concerned about the ruling. For instance, if Apple were to produce a defective product the potential for harm looms large—especially if such a vulnerability or defect were to fall into the wrong hands—potentially placing millions of Apple customers at risk. Luckily, Cook has, at least for the moment, forestalled the encryption hangman.
Trevor Pott has an interesting alternative take on this issue at The Register, saying:
Apple shouldn’t be hiding behind technicalities of the law in order to claim that its devices guarantee our privacy. Its devices should not have encryption vulnerable to attack. If these devices are vulnerable to attack, then the judge is absolute within their rights to call on Apple to break that encryption.
There is a strong argument to be made that this analysis is correct. On the other hand, there’s no such thing as a software product or hardware device that is completely free and clear of “bugs.” If we take this line of thinking to its logical conclusion, then all tech companies can be compelled to provide “reasonable technical assistance” to break their product’s security, since none of them can be said to be completely free and clear of possible exploits.
Given that there are “bugs” in every hardware and software device out there on the market, ask yourself this: are you comfortable knowing that at any time, the government can issue an order compelling a technology firm to intentionally exploit existing, unintentional vulnerabilities in order to acquire data from your phone or other device? I’m not. And you shouldn’t be either.
The real issue here is whether companies like Apple ought to be forced to rewrite their code in order to provide the government the means of accessing your personal data. Law enforcement can certainly exploit vulnerabilities it finds in hardware and software, but compelling companies to actually assist law enforcement in these endeavors sets an unsettling tone, especially in the post-9/11 era, where government has shown itself to be a woefully inadequate caretaker of American civil liberties.
While there are certainly nuanced legal arguments to be made about whether Apple is justified in its intransigence, the reality is that we now live in a country where due process is regularly flaunted by the intelligence community. We reside in a nation where secret laws are issued by secret courts based on secret interpretations of law. Is this the America our Founders intended? I’ll venture to guess it is not.
Cook put it best in his letter:
The implications of the government’s demands are chilling. If the government can use the All Writs Act to make it easier to unlock your iPhone, it would have the power to reach into anyone’s device to capture their data. The government could extend this breach of privacy and demand that Apple build surveillance software to intercept your messages, access your health records or financial data, track your location, or even access your phone’s microphone or camera without your knowledge.
So give thanks to Tim Cook and the folks over at Apple for being fantastic stewards of your personal privacy and security. If there had been more technology firm executives taking stands like this during the nascent years of the surveillance state’s growth, we likely would not be saddled with the pernicious panopticon that now pervades our everyday lives. Whatever the ramifications of Apple’s decision, I salute them for their staunch defense of American civil liberties.
Silicon Valley should be mad as hell—here’s hoping they’re not going to take it anymore.