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Why Apple’s Right And You’re Wrong About iPhone Encryption

Many of you know me as an Apple hater. While that isn’t really true, today will still go down in history as the day I defended Apple. First, you need background information:

The origins story (Cold, Hard Facts)

Over the last couple of months, the FBI has been basically scratching their heads when it comes to unlocking the iPhone of Syed Farook, a suspected shooter in the San Bernadino terrorist attack that took place on December 2nd of last year. The main problem that the FBI faces is that Farook worked for the government and had a setting on his iPhone the enforced a security policy that would wipe the phone if the incorrect password was entered too many times. The phone’s data is also encrypted, so there’s no way for them to simply pull the data off of the device and read it.

A week ago, a federal judge ordered Apple to assist law enforcement with breaking into the phone, to which Apple CEO Tim Cook responded and can be summarized by saying that although the San Bernadino shooting was tragic, it sets a very bad precedent to allow any government to compel Apple to breach the privacy of their customers, something they’re simply not willing to do. It’s worth noting that Apple is not being civilly disobedient, they are appealing the court’s decision.

The Conspiracy theory/opinion/Why You’re Wrong bit

Realistically, the FBI probably haven’t been scratching their heads on this matter, but rather scratching their heads on how they could leverage this case to force Apple (and similar companies) to build a “back door” into their operating systems for law enforcement to be able to have easier access to data in criminal investigations.

On the surface that sounds reasonable – we all want to fight the bad guys to the best of our ability, but there are two important factors at play here: consumer privacy and the integrity of encryption.

First of all, politically speaking, I hold the inalienable right to privacy very near and dear. What that means is that the government has no right to invade upon the privacy of its citizens, particularly without a legal warrant issued with probable cause. That’s not entirely what’s going on here, but Tim Cook does a very good job of describing what a slippery slope this is:

The implications of the government’s demands are chilling. If the government can use the All Writs Act to make it easier to unlock your iPhone, it would have the power to reach into anyone’s device to capture their data. The government could extend this breach of privacy and demand that Apple build surveillance software to intercept your messages, access your health records or financial data, track your location, or even access your phone’s microphone or camera without your knowledge.

If you have issues with the PATRIOT Act and its incredible reach, you should at least be thinking twice about the precedent that would be set by Apple breaking its operating system to help the FBI – and there are reports that it isn’t just this one case.

Secondly there is the issue of integrity of encryption. The federal government has been trying very hard as of late to pass legislation that would require the technology industry to give government agencies a “back door” into all encrypted operating systems in the case that they need to access them during a criminal investigation. Right away: allowing for a “back door” is essentially building an exploit into the operating system and pretending that only the government will be able to use that exploit. Perhaps more importantly, you’re pretending that so-called trustworthy governments such as the that of the United States is the only one that’s going to want access or will gain access to such an exploit. Apple is an international company – the largest company on earth, in fact. They sell their phones in countries that some of us would consider enemies to the United States. Let us also not forget that some of our own government officials use iPhones (try to ignore most of the actual content of that article). There’s no such thing as a magical back door that only the good guys can get into – you get full encryption, or none.

So, yes, we all want to fight terrorism. There’s nobody here who is in favor of anything that happened this past December in San Bernadino – but that little computer in your pocket and the pocket of at least 20% of the planet – is not worth compromising in that fight.