Apple vs. FBI: nobody won
Last night I had drinks with someone who knows a ton about the Apple vs. FBI case. He explained to me the following:
- The way the FBI eventually figured out a way into the San Bernadino shooter’s phone was extremely involved and expensive, involving things like shaving tiny pieces of hardware apart without dropping anything or exposing anything to too much heat.
- This is a good thing, because that expensive process is extremely hard to scale.
- Also, there was no legal precedent created.
- Moreover, Apple has been making iPhones increasingly secure by default, for example with default encrypted iCloud data in more recent version of its operating system.
- Which means that in a couple of years, most people using iPhones will be pretty well protected from even expensive FBI searches, again as long as there’s no legal requirement to create backdoors.
This story is interesting, but it still leaves me extremely unsatisfied. In particular, I’ve really gotten riled up by stupid media stories that “Apple won”.
I’ve maintained for a while that this story isn’t a story about Apple at all, because Apple is not accountable to the public in any real way; Tim Cook could change his mind tomorrow about whether to care about consumer security and we wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.
I think I have to amend that claim somewhat, though. Because what’s really happening is that Apple, or rather Tim Cook, is pushing through his vision of consumer protection, knowing that there will be very little the U.S. government, or any other government for that matter, will be able to do about it on a technical level, unless they’re willing to make iPhones illegal altogether.
That’s not without precedent. For example, there are some radio scanners that are illegal in the U.S. and other countries. But it’d be hard to imagine what the public’s response would be to being told that they can no longer buy iPhones.
So, the way I see it, it’s Apple vs. everyone, and Apple is feeling pretty good about its chances.
And look, I happen to agree with Apple this time. But it’s a screwed up and tenuous situation, and it’s deeply anti-democratic. We haven’t actually had the urgently needed conversation about whether Americans have the right to encrypted communication. Instead, we’re relying on a private company to make de facto policy for our benefit. What?
Here’s what I’d like to see: a real conversation about what Americans are entitled to. It’s a conversation that Obama started a couple of weeks ago at SXSW:
if the government can’t get in, then everybody is walking around with a Swiss Bank account in their pocket. There has to be some concession to the need to be able to get into that information somehow.
I’ll start. Obama’s comparing the individual’s desire for privacy with a Swiss Bank account is a smear tactic on the one hand – we’re trying to avoid taxes or something, which smacks of the tired line “don’t worry if you have nothing to hide” – and it’s disingenuous on the other hand – acting as if all information is equivalent, when we know that the government may claim access to our financial information, for tax purposes, but should never have access to our love letters. And since both kinds of information is stored on our phone, I think right there we have a pretty great argument explaining why our phones are nothing like Swiss Bank accounts.
Here’s what I’d like to see. A nuanced discussion about what types of data the government should have access to and under what circumstances, where the government has to make its case and the public gets to weigh in, since we care about terrorism too.