It’s over. An official court filing by the U.S. Government in California states:
The government has now successfully accessed the data stored on Farook’s iPhone and therefore no longer requires the assistance from Apple Inc. …
Accordingly, the government hereby requests that the Order Compelling Apple Inc. to Assist Agents in Search dated February 16, 2016 be vacated.”
That would seem to be the end of the story. But, as tech writer John Gruber put it, “A battle is over, but the war has only just begun.”
“Farook” is Syed Farook, the terrorist who, along with his wife, killed 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif., in December, then died in a shootout with police. After the shootout, police found Farook’s iPhone. Subsequently, the FBI got a court injunction ordering Apple Inc. to help break the encryption installed on the phone. Apple’s chief executive, Timothy Cook refused to cooperate, claiming the request violated the privacy rights of Apple customers.
As with most questions of right and wrong, there’s no simple answer. The issues are complex enough for plausible arguments on both sides. As security technonologist Bruce Schneier put it in an opinion piece in the Washington Post, “The FBI sees this as a privacy vs. security debate, while the tech community sees it as a security vs. surveillance debate.”
Schneier is convinced that complying with the FBI demand would spell the end of security for all.
He argues that the encryption security feature protects users from criminals breaking into bank accounts and other stored information. Then he added, “Encryption protects the phones of dissidents around the world if they’re taken by local police. It protects all the data on your phone, and the apps that increasingly control the world around you.”
To create a back door through which the government could bypass the installed encryption, he said, would endanger all iPhone owners because it could presumably be used on other iPhones, not just Syed Farook’s, as the FBI maintained.
Further fanning the flames, John Gruber quotes Edward Snowden, who quoted a report in The New York Times that got cut in later versions. The Times story originally said, “China is watching the dispute closely. Analysts say the Chinese government does take cues from United States when it comes to encryption regulations, and that it would most likely demand that multinational companies provide accommodations similar to those in United States.” And it went on to say, “a push from American law enforcement agencies to unlock iPhones would embolden Beijing to demand the same.”
The arguments sound plausible, but under scrutiny, they don’t hold up. If you take apart apples and put the heat on them, they turn into applesauce.
As for “dissidents” rights to privacy, the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 proved that China doesn’t need any encouragement to discourage dissidents. And the world silence in the wake of the slaughter would suggest that Beijing doesn’t need anyone to embolden their iron fist.
The very notion of protecting anyone from computer hacking by the Chinese is laughable today. No doubt Chinese spies hacking into White House security systems knew long before the New York Times that President Obama would not be staying at the — now Chinese owned — Waldorf Astoria Hotel when he came to New York for last year’s United Nations General Assembly.
Of course, there are no demographic studies of how many dissidents own smartphones vs. how many terrorists own smartphones. But unbreakable encryption on terrorists’ phones effectively turns their phones into weapons.
To many techies, the cyber world and its tools are the last frontier of freedom. But freedom has to be protected by limits. If a phone has information on it that could possibly prevent further loss of life, it is not only a right but a holy obligation to do whatever it takes to get that information.
You don’t ask permission before defusing a time bomb.
Apple needs to maintain the myth of invincible security. So what if researchers at Johns Hopkins found a flaw in Apple’s iMessage service that could let hackers intercept images and videos? And so what if devices can be infected through a user’s computer with the AceDeceiver malware, which can then attack even brand new iPhones? Who knows about those flaws? But fighting the FBI is major publicity.
Remember the old legend? A fellow was driving a Rolls-Royce and a spring broke. Rolls-Royce sent a mechanic with the part. Months later, he called and asked why he never got a bill. The manager answered, “There must be some mistake. That couldn’t happen to a Rolls-Royce.”
There is reason to believe that as far as Apple is concerned, what is really going on here is not a rights issue, but a marketing issue. Apple fears that sales will go down if they lose their reputation for unbreakable encryption. Their worries is understandable, but ultimately saving human lives come first.