When President Obama took to the stage at SXSW to stand by the federal government’s stance on commercial encryption technologies, he should have known he was entering the lion’s den. Technologists—ranging from major companies like Amazon, Google, and Facebook, to computer security experts and hacker-types—have supported Apple’s refusal to create, software that would unlock the cellphone of the now-deceased perpetrators of attacks in San Bernadino, California in December 2015. The FBI insistence on the reveal of this information presents a confounding case that asks what is more important: personal privacy or national security?
While the ubiquitous use of the word “Orwellian” within this debate might suggest universal opposition to the FBI’s position, the American public is split on the issue. It is a challenging case, and it makes sense that American’s aren’t sure what to think: the massive technological advances in the last 20 years, paired with developments in global terrorism, have drastically shifted our socio-political landscape. On one side of the spectrum, private citizens worry about encroaching government control in the private sphere. Yet on the other side, terrorists attacks have become frighteningly routine.
FBI vs Apple
There is a lot of talk going on about what encryption technology can and cannot do. But there is a subtler argument occurring that questions the ways in which we discuss technology. The documents revealed by Edward Snowden in 2013 sparked a wave of accusatory language about the methods and means our federal government uses to monitor private citizens. Leaving the accuracy of those comparisons to the many hundreds of blogs and articles written on that still-unfolding drama, it’s difficult not to notice how easily the anger and rhetoric from that debate shifted to the current one. However, while there were differences between revelations on the NSA and those concerning the FBI, these same notions of privacy are being brought to the forefront once again.
Apple has held steadfastly to their belief that providing a “key” to the FBI is both unreasonable and unethical. Apple’s legal team has argued that the order produced on the FBI’s behalf presents an undue burden on the company to create software to unlock the phone. They would be forced to create an “govtOS” that simultaneously grants access to thousands of government officials, yet is also foolproof and safe from hackers and those with malicious intent. Additionally, Apple has pointed to the New York District Attorney’s office, which has 175 phones in need of decrypting in active cases, as evidence that this current case will lead to Apple and other companies having to establish separate offices to solely deal with requests from law enforcement.
On the converse, the FBI has presented a compelling case that identifies the both the risks of privacy and those relating to Apple’s refusal to grant them the key. The “backdoor” that the FBI is requesting is not so much an encryption breaking, unprecedented breach of consumer privacy: it’s essentially asking for the same level of access that they had with previous operating systems, or maybe even less. Since iOS8, Apple has made it standard that almost all data on a phone is encrypted as long as the phone is locked behind the familiar 4-6 character code password screen. The FBI has asked Apple to create a version of their software that does not have the 10-password limit on incorrect passwords, that allows for digital input of passwords, and that will not have delays between password entries. The FBI would then use “brute-force” methods—trying every possible combination of passwords—to unlock the phone.
The government’s response is hardly surprising: the system not only regulates user behavior by mandating encryption, it also regulates law enforcement’s ability to conduct searches in a way that has up to now been regulated by the law. Despite a general atmosphere of technological determinism accompanying the information age and this case in particular, there is nothing “natural” or necessary about the software that Apple has created. Other regulatory modalities could push back against strong encryption technology, as is happening with new legal regulation in the UK, for better or for worse. Perhaps at a time when trust in the government is low, especially with regards to privacy, we would rather leave this decision to corporations. If nothing else, the re-ignition of the debate by the current case will hopefully encourage the public to consider what they value, and not leave the decision to corporations and policy makers without having a say.
The issues involved in the new Crypto Wars will be explored this evening at a live gnovis debate. We will explore the complexities of this revolutionary case. The motion on the table: The US Government Should Be Able To Compel Companies To Create Technological “Backdoors” On Their Products. Please join CCT in the Car Barn, room 203, at 7pm for a lively discussion on what this case means for citizens as we embark on a new technological era.