The Apple Government Debate

For today’s blog post I figured I’d do something totally different. Most of the time we write about web design and internet marketing trends, how it affects businesses and how you can harness this power to drive visitors, purchases, etc. However, with so much news locally and nationally about complicated technology (and web based) issues, notably the FBI pressuring Apple to handicap their devices in the name of national security, as well as a number of local hacking incidents in Lee county and throughout Southwest Florida I figured I’d chime in with a clarification on what’s happening for our readers as well as provide a little bit of commentary and opinion.

Apple, Encryption, the FBI

As some of you probably know there was a terrible shooting incident in San Bernardino. According to Wikipedia:

On December 2, 2015, 14 people were killed and 22 were seriously injured in a terrorist attack at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California, which consisted of a mass shooting and an attempted bombing.

The FBI, who recovered the shooters’ phone has been trying to get in for additional evidence, as well as to possibly find information that could help them locate other parties involved, and prevent further bloodshed. This story has been reported in countless places:

A judge in California ordered Apple back in February to not only help unlock the phone, but also – “for this particular iphone” – devise a backdoor. Apple, in a public letter by CEO Tim Cook decided they would not do the latter (weaken encryption, design a backdoor, etc.) after helping authorities and they are now battling things out in Federal Court.

What’s the Problem?

I see the issues in 3 major categories:

  1. Culture
  2. Moral/Ethical/Legal Precedence
  3. Technology

Culture

From my personal perspective on this issue I see a lot of problems. One of the largest is that the public and government appear to bemostly ignorant on the issues, how technology works, and the larger implications such requested changes will or may have. Nuance and care is no longer something many have the time or luxury to care about. Even though with the speed at which change and technology is multiplied and can reach a global audience is astronomical, meaning small changes today can affect someone across the globe tomorrow. Nuance is more important than ever.

This point is probably best demonstrated through the show “Last Week Tonight’s” take on the issue:

Moral & Ethics & Legal Precedent

From a moral and ethical stand point here’s what I see – Apple has been asked to assist in opening the phone and they cooperated. However, to go a step further and build software to assist the FBI in breaking into phones is a much bigger issue. Before jumping into more detail let’s take a step back and perform a small thought experiment:

  • If they get on the phone, there is NO guarantee they’re going to find anything.
  • If they find anything, there’s no guarantee it will actually be helpful, won’t be outdated, etc. – odds are if any person, plot, etc. was connected – upon learning about the situation would have immediately changed.
  • If they get into the phone and get at material that assists them, saves lives – what then? Let’s carry this thought experiment out fully…
  • Doing things to prevent loss of life, bloodshed, and hysteria is important. However, doing things to prevent loss of life isn’t THE ONLY THING. We could lock up everyone in their own personal padded cell tomorrow and drive the rate of homicide to 0, but at what cost (monetarily and for our freedoms)?

If Apple has to break it open once, it will have to do that every time. And even if they don’t have to do it every time… the Snowden and NSA revelations have brought to light the clandestine and virtually lawless abandon with which the NSA can and does snoop on everyone, we’ll be coming back to this in a moment. With such a piece in place, who’s to say this wouldn’t be used as a mass-surveillance tool as seemingly so many other communications, software, and network/internet infrastructure is already.

Although there is debate and a lack of consistency – there is due process and procedures for dealing with such issues…

On the legal side, things are slightly complex, but there is precedent for judges and courts to compel the accused to provide their passcodes, passwords, etc. in order to decrypt their information meaning we have a way to deal with this. So we do have a way to handle this in the court system.

However, it’s not cut-and-dry as there have been judges in various cases on both sides of the legal debate – those that compel individuals to both provide their password for decryption purposes as well as those that believe this is protected under the 5th amendment. For more information check out Key Disclosure Laws in cases involving encryption and cryptography.

Technical

From a technological stand point, the issue is even more clear, although there’s really 3 major sub-issues here as well. Bundling them gets complicated and as I already asserted this is a subject that requires nuance, so stick with me and let’s break things down a bit further…

  1. Back-Door
  2. Encryption
  3. What’s Technically Possible

Back Door – The FBI has asked Apple, in part, to build a “back-door” into their software. An area of their device and operating system that would only be accessible to their (the FBI’s) access, which – they could access when they “really” needed. Really is in quotes, because, again, as Edward Snowden and Julian Assange have pointed out repeatedly the government and law enforcement, under the auspices of “National Security,” have been ignoring laws and side-stepping any kind of public debate on eavesdropping and the mass information collection going on and have repeatedly lied about it.

This is not conspiracy; this is not over simplification or exaggeration:

When asked whether or not the NSA is collecting data on Americans, agency director John Clapper responded… “No, sir,” and, “Not wittingly.”

Just months later Snowden would reveal the truth. And according to the Reason.com article… “A year later, Clapper’s testimony represents one of the great, and unfortunate, holes in timely fact-checking. The challenge in discerning whether those with privileged information, particularly on matters of national security, are speaking truthfully in public is a difficult, if not impossible, task.”

What does this all mean?

As a child of the 80’s and early 90’s, a millennial, I grew up reading some amazing books – most notably 1984 and Brave New World. Regardless of which kind of dystopia you prefer, or believe we may be spiraling towards, I see surveillance FAR scarier and deeper than anything found in Orwell’s master piece (although some is frighteningly similar to that predicted by the books and movies – NYC using massive xrays for citizen surveillance).

(I won’t even get into the health problems with such devices…) 

But coming full circle and applying this to our current attachment to tablets, mobile phones, and computers we couldn’t have imagined devices, networked, which essentially become an extension of our minds, our sub-conscious – our deepest fears, greatest desires, and brightest fantasies.

Let’s solidify the abstract and bring this back down to the technology involved…

From a strictly technical standpoint, there’s no way to guarantee that a backdoor can ONLY be accessed by one deserving party. And as I feel I’ve demonstrated above, the government has “wittingly” spied on everyone over the last 10 years using EXACTLY these kinds of “backdoors” against its own people.

Encryption

I think using the analogy of a backdoor here very helpful as it sets the stage for another analogy… encryption. If you think of software as a house there’s the main way in… your login, username/password… and then there’s this potential “back door.” In some ways, we’re extremely familiar with “backdoors” as we build software and have to secure our software against them, look for potential back doors in others’ software, and build our own ways into things. But let’s concentrate on what’s actually securing all of this “stuff” … you can think of the building as constructed by encryption.

Now imagine this building – the software in question, as a building made of incredibly tough metal, imagine this building was made of adamantium.

(that’s right the fictional unbreakable metal from the Marvel Universe)

Asking to disable or weaken encryption is similar to saying – instead of building your house with something like adamantium – which protects everyone on the inside to something more brittle, something that won’t protect the inhabitants, because if the government comes knocking they want to know that if they REALLY need to – we can break down not just the door, but the whole house.

Encryption is like this. Simplified technically it’s just a mixing up of data, which can be easily put back into the right ordered if you have the code, but if you don’t is virtually (or literally) impossible to break into…

I find this fascinating from a technical standpoint and is one of the elements that originally attracted me to Bitcoin, but that’s another conversation entirely. So the government is asking, again, to minimize the safety and security of millions and millions and millions of Apple customers throughout the world, with the ridiculous idea that…

There’s still a lock on the door.

What’s Possible

As Last Week Tonight aptly pointed out, the way this issue is discussed implies many involved have little or no idea what they’re asking, and perhaps, even more scary (for me as a non-programmer…) they don’t even know about the principals behind what they’re asking for. Which means there’s absolutely no way they can understand the short and long-term implications of their decisions, regardless of whether or not they think they’re worth the price.

In summation, I don’t trust Apple or the Government. Nearly every large tech company has had big ties to the government and undercover cooperation with them. However, at least this juggernaut is starting the conversation, and is no longer (if it ever did) providing such information, controls, access, without protest. They’re opening up a cconversation and beginning the education process on digital and information freedoms that I think we sorely lack in the United States right now (unless you work in the tech field and understand what’s happening on a deeper level). Because if not Apple then who? Between Apple and Google there are a couple billion devices collecting, storing, and transmitting some of your most intimate data out there – do we want the government, or others, to have access to this information without due process?

I’ve never been an Apple fan boy. But, I must praise Apple for their decision to challenge this order, to fight for freedom online, and the safety and security of their customers. It seems all too fitting and ironic, that the company whose breakout moment came during a commercial in which they challenged the Orwellian big-brother-esque IBM during the super bowl.

More than 30 years later they’re still challenging Big Brother, this time – for real.

Kristen Bachmeier
Kristen Bachmeier
Kristen Bachmeier is Atilus' Director of Operations and helps to oversee all client accounts and day-to-day operations. Additionally, Kristen has worked in digital marketing for 5+ years and has helped create digital marketing plans for hundreds of clients.

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