The State is getting nervous. Technology has a way of disrupting institutional power. The Guttenberg printing press liberated the flow of knowledge from the former stranglehold of the Church and its scribes. Today the digital realm of the Internet is effecting a similar change with self-publishing upon the old-world monopoly of the print-publishing house. Travel agents are virtually a thing of the past. Bitcoin is beginning to threaten the monopoly the banks and the government have over the flow of money. Encryption of our digital lives (personal electronic devices) is now threatening the power and relevance of the State. Encryption means we can manage our own security; we don’t need some nebulous State apparatus to keep us safe and secure. Nearly everything that is important to us (photos, messages, financials, medical info, etc.) is locked away securely in our digital treasure chest.
But the State will have none of that. They demand the key to that treasure chest. Both New York and California legislatures have introduced bills banning the sale of smartphones that do not offer some sort of encryption “back door”. How dare these companies make a product that is impervious to the prying eyes of the State! This is a direct threat to their unlimited power to intrude into our lives.
Not to be outdone, the Federal government is getting in on the back-door game. A federal judge recently ordered Apple to assist the FBI in unlocking the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters. Apple is openly defying this order. The primary problem is that were Apple to comply with the order there is nothing to prevent the technique used from falling into the hands of truly “bad guys” who could then threaten the privacy and security of every iPhone user. It’s like the government asking scientists to build the atomic bomb “just this once, to stop the bad guys”. Once knowledge is out there it cannot be contained.
But even worse, the government’s use of an act from 1789 (the All Writ Act) to compel Apple to help them sets a dangerous precedent. It is not the case that Apple has in its possession information that it is being asked to hand over (which it has always done in the past when presented with a warrant). Instead Apple is being forced to help the FBI, drafted as it were, unlock this device. Insert picture of government agent holding loaded gun to Tim Cook’s head and saying “help us, please” and you’ll get the picture.
Yes, but you say the FBI is trying to stop future terror events, so anything to prevent a loss of life is worth it. Ok, well that cuts both ways. If Apple helps the FBI on what grounds could it refuse to help the government of China, Russia or perhaps even a threatening mob boss? After all, they know that since Apple helped the FBI then it is indeed possible to unlock these things. Is the standard of behavior to be: Apple helps any “legitimate” state actor, except when they are bad, because of course everyone knows who the goods guys and bad guys are.
To be clear, this is not Apple’s property. They are a third party being asked to do the government’s bidding. If they complied it would set the awful precedent that the companies we do business with can be secretly dragooned into the employ of the State in order to spy on and monitor us without our knowledge. Don’t think that can happen? Well, the government already has a terrible track record of abusing its surveillance power. It took Edward Snowden blowing the whistle to show us how the NSA was spying on everyone in contravention of the Patriot Act. In fact Samsung just recently warned its customers that its voice recognition could be used by third party vendors to listen to conversations so they advised caution about what you say in front of it. Now imagine Samsung receives a request from the FBI to “help” them monitor everyone so they can ensure “our safety”. Nah… I’m sure that would never happen. Thank you Apple for fighting for us. Your actions today may well ensure that our future “won’t be like 1984.”