Last December there was a terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California. One of the shooters had an iPhone that was password protected. As a service to its customers, Apple has an option to wipe the data from a phone after 10 bad attempts to unlock it. The FBI was, apparently, unaware of this feature and wiped the phone. The FBI then sued Apple to open up the phone and to create a backdoor into all iPhones that the government can access. The FBI cited the 227 year old “All Writs Act of 1789” which states that the courts may “issue all writs necessary or appropriate in aid of their respective jurisdictions and agreeable to the usages and principles of law.” The FBI reads this to mean that they can write their own backdoors into any software they deem appropriate. An operating system back door is a loophole that allows anyone with the correct credentials to bypass whatever security features are on a device. As an answer to that court order, Apple CEO Tim Cook wrote a Libertarian-goldmine of an open letter to the government that can be summed up succinctly as “hell no.”
We have great respect for the professionals at the FBI, and we believe their intentions are good. Up to this point, we have done everything that is both within our power and within the law to help them. But now the U.S. 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.
Specifically, 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. In the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession.
On February 29th, a federal judge ruled that the FBI could not force Apple to unlock the phone. Recently, Apple has vowed to take the matter all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary. The FBI is in the process of appealing to a higher court. Tech security entrepreneur and Libertarian Presidential candidate John Mcafee has offered his services publicly to salvage the data off of the phone to end the government’s push for a backdoor. He claims that he can retrieve the data within three weeks, or he will eat his shoe and stream it live.
Aside from the fact that the Apple Operating system would have to be entirely rewritten to include these backdoors–which would cost millions of dollars and labor to build an inferior product–there are 2 major problems with the foundational logic. The first problem is, once the door is made, you don’t have to beat the system, you just have to beat the door. A hacker could fake their credentials and walk into that loophole and have unrestricted access to anything on your phone, the same unrestricted access the government wants. Last year’s massive leak of the sensitive photos and videos of celebrities reminded everyone of how much of our private and personal lives are on our devices. The bigger problems aren’t just for compromising photos and texts–trade secrets of international conglomerates could be hacked by competing corporations. The information and trade secrets that these important businesses rely on would be up for grabs just as easily.
The second, and in our opinion the far more important problem, is that the government believes it has a right to any digital data that it wants, regardless of suspicion of wrongdoing. If the precedent is set that every digital device will have these backdoor government access ports, then every digital secret is up for grabs. I am not one to throw around the Orwell comparisons, but who needs Big Brother to watch everything we do when every bit of information worth knowing is available at a moment’s notice. In a world where the Samsung Smart TV and Amazon Echo are always listening for commands from its user, Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Technology had this to say about the situation:
IPhones and other mobile phones are not the only common consumer appliances that this Order sets a precedent for converting to surveillance devices. Amazon distributes an appliance called the Echo that captures spoken voice. …While Amazon designed the Echo only to send voice data to Amazon if it “hears” the word “Alexa,” that limitation, like the iPhone passcode limitations, is encoded in software. Similarly, smart TVs, like those sold by Samsung, capture and transmit owners’ voices in an effort to identify natural language commands and search requests. In responding to consumer privacy concerns, Samsung assured the public that TV owners’ voice data would only be collected if the TV user clicks the activation button and speaks into the microphone on the remote control.
Again, like the iPhone passcode limitations, this privacy safeguard is a function of software. If the government is allowed compel Apple to change its software to enable decryption and forensic access here, will it also be allowed to compel Amazon to update the Echo, or Samsung to update its Smart TVs, to always collect some customers’ conversations?
Tim Cook’s arguments for not unlocking the IPhone and adding a backdoor into its data are bedrock privacy issues that we at Laissez Squares would be remiss if we didn’t discuss. Increasing numbers of tech heavyweights like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft have lined up behind Apple and Mr. Cook and Mcaffee to fight for our rights to digital privacy.