FBI vs. Apple about more than a phone

by | Feb 22, 2016 | Comment, Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

An iPhone 5C is about 5 inches high and a third of an inch thick. Yet inside that small device now swirls a critical debate over our privacy.

The iPhone in question belonged to Syed Farook, who, last December, along with his wife, shot and killed 14 people and wounded 22 others in a San Bernardino, Calif., public health facility. The FBI now wants encrypted data from Farook’s iPhone. It could be helpful. It could be nothing.

But the FBI wants in. And it can’t get in.

Apple built that version of the iPhone, and later versions, with an encryption code to protect its customers’ information — your information — from falling into the wrong hands: hackers, crooks, identity thieves, etc.

That same consumer protection is keeping the FBI from busting into that iPhone with its normal technique — a “brute-force” program that tries many password combinations per second — because the phone destroys all private data after 10 failed password tries.

So the FBI came after Apple with a court order. It doesn’t just want the phone unlocked (as Apple has done for the FBI with other phones). It doesn’t just want existing data shared (which Apple already did, handing the FBI Farook’s previous iCloud backups).

The FBI now wants Apple to build new software it doesn’t currently have to do something it can’t currently do — poison the iPhone with malware to change the operating system and enable the FBI to make as many brute-force password guesses as it needs — a process which could, experts say, still take months.

An important matter of rights

The FBI is citing a law from 1789 that requires people or businesses not involved in the case to execute court orders. Apple’s defenders cite a 1977 Supreme Court case that says the government can’t place “unreasonable burdens” on a third party to assist law enforcement.

But this is about more than what’s “reasonable.” It pits patriotism against privacy, a dicey battle, because American patriotism is largely about an individual’s rights.

The FBI claims this is one case and one phone. Apple CEO Tim Cook strongly disagreed in a statement: “That’s simply not true. Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices. In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks.”

There’s no denying that if the FBI wins this case, Apple’s engineers and programmers would literally have to create something for the government. That feels like something bigger than opening a file. Do we want a country where our leaders can commandeer a business and say, “You must make this for us now?”

And if you don’t think the government can abuse power in gathering information, look no further than McCarthyism in the 1950s. Imagine, if there were cell phones back then, how “naming names” wouldn’t have been an issue. Congress could have easily collected numbers and photos and, in the name of patriotism, jailed countless citizens for perceived Communist associations.

History has shown where that got us.

Rights we must protect

Now, I know some people want to make this a “Whose side are you on?” question. That ugly vitriol never helps. Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, for example, said in a statement: “Apple chose to protect a dead ISIS terrorist’s privacy over the security of the American people.”

First, it’s not the terrorist’s privacy, it’s everyone’s. Second, no one even knows if that encrypted data is worth an ounce of new information.

Third, it’s just not that simple. Cotton himself, a staunch gun rights defender, has passionately fought against deeper background checks for people like Farook, an American citizen, to own the legal weapons that were used to kill 14 people — yet he suggests Apple is un-American in handing over information.

Tricky balance, isn’t it?

It doesn’t stop there. Last year, President Barack Obama criticized the Chinese government for making a law forcing tech companies to turn over encryption keys in terrorism cases. Obama told Reuters this would let the Chinese “snoop and keep track of all users of those services.”

How can he say that and support this? You can be certain if the FBI prevails, whatever program Apple creates will be insisted upon by China and Russia as a condition of doing business there. And in today’s world, do any of us really think a program, once created, can be kept out of the wrong hands? Or that there wouldn’t be more cases that the government will claim warrants its use?

Whatever its initial motivations, Apple did a rare thing a few years ago: it created a system that even it can’t get into. It was done not to protect terrorists, but to protect you and me.

As much as we abhor the murderous acts of Farook, his wife, and others like them, such liberties and personal rights are the very things we are attacked for, and the very things we need most to protect.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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