Apple took a stand for consumers when it responded to an FBI request to break into San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook’s iPhone by effectively telling the agency to go pound sand. In a letter to customers, Apple CEO Tim Cook wrote, “While we believe the FBI’s intentions are good, it would be wrong for the government to force us to build a backdoor into our products.” He is exactly right. Unfortunately, the case is just the latest battle in an ongoing effort to undermine important personal privacy tools in the name of law enforcement convenience.
Apple has cooperated in the past when officials, with an appropriate warrant, have asked for information in its possession, such as that stored on its iCloud servers. But thanks to an FBI screw-up, Farook’s iCloud password was reset while they tried to gain access to his account. This means an auto-backup that might have contained valuable information regarding his activities shortly before the shooting was unable to occur.
What the government wants is for Apple to hack the device by effectively creating a backdoor into the iOS operating system and forcing an update of the compromised version onto Farook’s device. It’s not that the FBI needs Apple to break in – it can brute force the short numeric passkey itself – but it requires Apple to disable the security feature that wipes the phone’s data after too many incorrect guesses.
This makes the judge’s order that Apple comply particularly mind-boggling. Unlike a typical warrant, Apple is not being asked to supply information in its possession. Rather, it is being compelled into service as the government’s own personal IT department and forced to create a new product specifically designed to undermine the one it sells to customers.
The government promises not to misuse the skeleton key it is forcing Apple to create, but that is a hollow assurance. Quite probably the FBI or an intelligence agency will deliberately misuse it. And almost certainly, having set a precedent, law enforcement officials across the nation facing similar roadblocks will pursue similar orders. But even if neither of those occur, Apple is right to worry – especially given the government’s poor record of protecting sensitive information – that they key could simply leak accidentally
The San Bernardino iPhone fight is part of a larger debate over whether the private sphere should be required by law to elevate the convenience of law enforcement over all other considerations.
For anyone not reflexively oriented toward the state, it should be obvious that rights ought not be tossed aside simply because they make life harder for law enforcement. Indeed, many rights exist precisely for that reason. But it is those doing nothing wrong that suffer most when ordinary citizens lose access to technology that could protect them from criminals just because that same technology might sometimes make it a bit harder to uncover crimes.
We’ve seen this in the encryption fight that has been brewing for years. Certain government actors, like intelligence officials and FBI Director Comey, want all encryption systems to have a “backdoor” because someone somewhere might be plotting criminal activity over protected communication systems. Those who understand how encryption works understand that this effectively mean making encryption worthless.
David Cameron tried to ban WhatsApp and SnapChat in the UK as part of their own anti-encryption effort, but EU law prevented the move. India also made a move to undermine encryption but was forced to backpedal after popular backlash. However, we’ve seen this attitude prevail in other circumstances. Following the 9/11 attacks it was decided that because some bad people occasionally use electronic banking, the rest of us should get no financial privacy whatsoever.
Some have even taken the idea to the absurd extreme of outlawing cash, or at least larger bills. Sure, some behind the war on cash are just Keynesians upset that privately conducted transactions prevent the level of central planning over the economy they desire. But others literally think cash should be banned because it’s too hard for cops to track – as if we should only be allowed to engage in an activity if the government is capable of peaking over our shoulders at the same time. That’s absurd, and is a direct attack on our liberty.
The dictating of private affairs for government convenience extends to petty issues as well. Consider an ordinance proposed in Jacksonville to make it illegal for someone to park their car backwards in their own driveway. What could possible possess an elected official to contemplate such petty tyranny? Well, it was apparently too difficult for law enforcement to “crackdown” on abandoned vehicles without seeing the license plate information. The sane response in a free society would be to say, “too bad.” But not when all life revolves around the state.
While the effort to undermine encryption has failed in several nations thus far, it’s not going away. The Apple brouhaha has Congress leaping into action. Or at least the appearance of action. What may come of it remains to be seen. But it’s not a good sign when every Republican presidential candidate reflexively sided with the government against Apple on such a crucial civil liberties issue. No surprise but Donald Trump in particular again revealed the frightening depth of his authoritarian instincts by even calling for an Apple boycott for daring to question the whims of the state. For the sake of our dwindling liberties, we can only hope whomever ultimately wins in November is not so quick to embrace the war on encryption and privacy.
Photo via Apple
Brian Garst is an advocate for economic and individual liberty. He works as Director of Policy and Communications at the Center for Freedom & Prosperity, a free market think-tank dedicated to preserving tax competition. His writings have been published in major domestic and international papers, and he is a regular contributor for Cayman Financial Review. He also blogs at BrianGarst.com and you can find him on Twitter @BrianGarst.
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