Why Apple’s Refusal to Unlock a Terrorist’s Phone Matters

Apple's CEO Tim Cook has decided to put up a fight against the FBI. (Youtube)
Apple’s CEO Tim Cook has decided to put up a fight against the FBI. (WhatTheHack)

By Luis H. Ball Jr.

It’s not about us trying to get backdoor. It’s a term that confuses me frankly, I don’t want a door, I don’t want a window, I don’t want a sliding glass door. I would like people to comply with court orders – James Comey, FBI Director

A defiant James Comey said these words well over a month before the general public would become aware of the behind-the-scenes war being waged for nothing less than an iPhone 5c.

The general public paid little notice then, just like in July of last year and in October 2014. But, as of last Tuesday, the incredibly technical debate over encryption was suddenly being discussed all across the United States.

Maybe we should have been paying closer attention.

It’s now common knowledge that, on February 16, 2016, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), through the US Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles, filed a 40-page motion to have the courts force Apple to make a version of the iOS operating system.

Their aim is to be able to bypass built-in encryption mechanisms so that investigators can have access to the iPhone 5c belonging to the late Syed Farook, the San Bernardino shooter.

Apple’s CEO Tim Cook replied in turn by publishing an open letter to customers, in which he stated:

[T]he US government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create. They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone.”

The moves and countermoves between the FBI and Apple continued throughout the week, as each tried to frame the narrative to best suit their needs.

Two Sides of the Coin

The FBI has gone for the classic “in support of the victims” story, attempting to frame this court order and its desire for an iOS decryption “key” as overdue justice for the shooting victims. They claim their needs fit the uniquely sensitive nature of the San Bernardino case. In the context of the worst year of mass shootings in US history, this has become a particularly strong and convincing narrative.

On the other hand, Apple has taken the approach of framing the debate in the context of  defending against an aggressor, the FBI. Tim Cook’s impassioned letter, a 30-minute interview with ABC, and public statements since the case burst open, have all pleaded with the public to not underestimate the dangerous precedent of coercing a technology company to write software for the government.

Cook has warned that the FBI is asking for software specifically designed to break the very safety mechanisms customers have come to expect. This would amount to “creating a cancer” for his company’s products. Apple’s argument is technical, difficult to digest, and, by definition, in opposition. They are at a discernable disadvantage.

But which of the two narratives should we believe and, regardless of our opinion of them, which one is winning in the court of public opinion?

Keys Under Doormats

[adrotate group=”7″]In order to pick a side and understand the core issues at play here, which are not about terrorism, we need to get through some techno-babble.

For starters, at the moment, it is not technically possible for Apple to just open up the San Bernardino phone for the FBI. In order to bypass Farook’s passcode, Apple would have to create a special version of their operating system that does away with the limit on the numbers of attempts one can make on a user’s passcode before erasing all of the data.

As of this moment, Apple doesn’t have, and doesn’t want to have, that version of its operating system.

Apple’s refusal to make this neutered version of iOS is decidedly not devoid of financial considerations, but the company’s greatest worry by far is actually the implications for users’ security. As over a dozen MIT professors made clear in their report, Keys Under Doormats, mandating insecurity by requiring government access to all data and communications:

the damage that could be caused by law enforcement’s exceptional access requirements would be even greater today than it would have been 20 years ago… it is doubtful that companies like Facebook and Twitter would even exist.”

The crux of their argument is best distilled by Chris Plante’s podcast, where the authors compare the federal government having a backdoor to our phones to having keys under all doormats for policemen to use at any time.

Apple filed a counter-motion against the Department Of Justice (DOJ) on February 25, using the points above as the core of their argument.

This is not a case about one isolated iPhone. Rather, this case is about the DOJ and the FBI seeking through the courts a dangerous power that Congress and the American people have withheld: the ability to force companies like Apple to undermine the basic security and privacy interests of hundreds of millions of individuals around the globe.”

Despite the academic consensus and overwhelming support from the rest of the industry, the FBI and DOJ are not backing down.

To understand why, one need look no further than T.C. Sotekk’s editorial on The Verge, Apple’s reality distortion field is losing against the terrorism distortion field, when he writes that:

Steve Jobs may have chucked a sledgehammer at Big Brother in 1984 when he was fighting IBM, but in 2016 Apple is fighting a very different set of acronyms. The FBI is making a case many people find compelling, and Apple’s success is far from guaranteed.”

However self-assured the DOJ and FBI feel with their narrative of counter-terrorism and justice for the victims of horrendous and inexcusable acts, they might be surprised that this battle may not be worth fighting.

Just as when the internet was in its infancy, Americans tend to have a reliable sixth sense when it comes to protecting their privacy, especially when there is a high political price to pay for failing to do so.

I wouldn’t be so surprised if, less than a year from now, headlines about FBI director James Comey are written to an entirely different tune.

Luis H. Ball Jr. is a writer and technology-evangelist. You can read his musings on the industry at elPundit.com

Subscribe free to our daily newsletter
Sign up here to get the latest news, updates and special reports delivered directly to your inbox.
You can unsubscribe at any time