Supposedly the FBI and the security apparatus of the United States is the most sophisticated in the world. We all know the plot in those types of Hollywood movies: where the evil (usually Republican) government forces at the CIA or FBI or whatever alphabet soup agency engages in some vast conspiracy to do something, something. Dark side.
Yet the FBI has sought a court order to force Apple to break into one of its mobile phones which was owned by Syed Rizwan Farook, the man who along with his wife killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California in 2015. Both Farook and his wife were killed shortly after. Apparently the FBI needs help breaking the encryption on his phone (which they believe has crucial information on it) and want Apple to help create a fix so the FBI can have unlimited attempts at unlocking the phone without losing the data.
So, the question is: what does the FBI expect to find and how will it be using this data? Uh, well, they probably will not know until they see it, but they know it is crucial to their investigation. Maybe, I guess. Who cares?
“[The FBI] are simply asking for something that would have an impact on this one device.”
Let us ignore those questions for now and focus on the other major issue here, namely what it is the FBI is ordering a private company to do. As Apple CEO Tim Cook stated, “The FBI wants us to make a new version of the iPhone operating system, circumventing several important security features, and install it on an iPhone recovered during the investigation.”
Yet White House spokesman Josh Earnest said, “They [the FBI] are simply asking for something that would have an impact on this one device.” Uh-huh, it is always ‘just this one time’ right? It is called setting a precedent Josh, a “dangerous” one too as Cook noted.
It all appears so easy, such common sense (right Donald?)! It is the phone of a terrorist who is already dead (so his privacy is not an issue), and we (the ever-reliable-and-we-always-keep-our-word-Government) are just asking for this one, tiny whittle phone to have a wee small adjustment to help us out despite our inability to do so with our $8.48 billion budget. What is next, Cook is sympathetic to terrorists?
Oh, too late. The uncle of Lee Rigby, who was brutally murdered in 2013 by two British men with terrorist sympathies, has criticised Apple’s policy saying the company was “protecting a murderer’s privacy at the cost of public safety”.
Why does this scenario sound all too familiar? Something bad happens, people’s emotions (naturally and rightfully so) run high and demand action or something be done to fix things? How well has emotion been at dictating public policy or the rule of law?
And that is the issue here. Farook committed murder, he is dead, good riddance. I will let God sort him out on that one. Nor will I patronise the Rigby family and pretend to understand what they have gone through. The problem here is people are being the emotional beings we tend to be. As David Hume once said:
“Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.“
Yet the rule of law must adhere to reason and what is written (granted, we get these wrong too). History is full of examples when the law is abused, but there are far worse examples of law based only on the will of men, which changes more often than there are atoms in the Universe.
Sure, I think it would be great for Apple to help out and help prevent possible attacks in the future or help bring more to justice. Should they do this at the expense of their customer’s privacy? Should they help set a dangerous precedent?
We know how this story goes if the FBI gets what they want out of Apple:
Apple makes the software for this one phone and helps the FBI. Thanks, Apple. Perhaps the FBI finds some useful data on the phone, maybe not. Another terrorist attack, another phone, another fix. An American citizen who might be a terrorist? Did everyone get the latest security patch from the Apple Store? Did you forget to read the T&Cs?
Do not worry, the US Government is reliable with this sort of thing. Can you trust them in the future to have access to a security feature which is basically no security feature at all ‘only when we need access to it’ – for public safety?
“How many more rights and inconveniences must we give up in the name of security?”
Look, I am not one to promote conspiracy theories about the evils of government. I do not have to. I can look through millenia of history and the tendency for human beings to be human beings (read: complete bastards). More importantly, I can look over the past few decades we have been hearing this tune: all in the name of security, right?
Thing is, it never happens all at once. This would be too obvious. No, it is usually a slow, insidious thing where one day you wake up and find your rights have disappeared.
This one issue will not bring about an end to privacy in the United States, but it would set a precedent and take us down the road we have already been walking along for far too long.
Maybe I am over-reacting, it happens. Maybe if Apple helps nothing else will come of it. Maybe. Yet my experience leads me to conclude otherwise.
How many more rights and inconveniences must we give up in the name of security?