Apple Defiance is Proper (2016 Mar)

by Barry A. Liebling

In the United States the appropriate mission of the government is to protect individual rights. This includes taking actions against criminals inside the country and against foreign enemies. Of course, there are limits to how the government can legitimately accomplish this. It has to be ethical and refrain from violating the rights of its own citizens. In essence, the government is obligated to follow the proper rules of engagement in the pursuit of its goals.

In December 2015 a husband and wife criminal-terrorist team attacked Americans in San Bernardino murdering 14 people and seriously injuring more than 20. The duo was killed on the same day, and the FBI recovered an iPhone used by the husband (owned by the city of San Bernardino) containing encrypted information that might be useful in preventing future attacks.

As of this writing the FBI has been unsuccessful at recovering the encrypted data on the handset. It has obtained a court order demanding that Apple develop a tool – which does not yet exist – that would unlock the contents of the smart phone. Top management at Apple has replied that while they agree with the FBI goal of stopping terrorist attacks, they will not acquiesce to the government’s order. The Apple CEO maintains (somewhat elliptically) that compliance will make all smart phones (and smart phone users) less secure and will materially damage Apple’s reputation and its effectiveness as a business.

While commentators with strong opinions have lined up both for and against Apple’s position, this is a clear case where Apple is acting properly and the government is overreaching.

Here are several observations.

Apple has a history of turning over data and physical evidence to the government. But in those cases the property was owned by – or in possession of – Apple. In the San Bernardino case neither condition is met. Consequently, critics of Apple are mistaken when they claim that Apple is refusing to perform a service it has routinely done.

The government is ordering Apple to invent a method for getting information from an encrypted iPhone. The task is difficult precisely because Apple deliberately made its product hack-proof, designing the iPhone so that even Apple itself could not recover its customers’ confidential information. Notice that this makes the Apple device extremely valuable to customers (and the vast majority are neither criminals nor terrorists). If Apple develops a way around its carefully-engineered encryption all of its present and future products become less valuable. This is because the world will know that Apple not only can, but does (and will), remove the security features of its products.

Critics on the side of the government have asserted that the FBI demands are reasonable. They say that Apple does not have to give (or even show) the new hacking software to the government. The Feds only want the information on the San Bernardino phone. But once Apple develops the method the genie is out of the bottle. People at Apple, and people who know people at Apple, will understand that the decrypting method exists. And many will be motivated to get their hands on it. Significantly, in the future when the government wants to conscript Apple into helping it with another decryption it will claim that Apple already has the tools, and the company is obligated to hand them over. Even if Apple destroys the new software after it is used once, the government will point out that since it succeeded with the San Bernardino handset the company has the capability to create it again.

Apple has some of the most talented and competent IT professionals in the world. It is highly likely that the problem of cracking the encryption of the San Bernardino iPhone is something that Apple could handle. However, Apple does not have a monopoly. There are many people (former Apple employees, tech savvy engineers at other companies, independent hackers, government experts, …) who could take on the decrypting task and succeed. It is instructive to consider why the government does not leave Apple out of the loop and use outside resources to get into the phone. Could it be that officials at the Justice Department besides wanting to thwart terrorists also are intent on creating a precedent in demanding Apple’s compliance? If Apple caves in how much easier will it be to bully other private citizens and companies? To a power-hungry government official expanding the reach of the state is always a priority.

Some supporters of the FBI demands have claimed that if Apple complies the country will be safer because terrorists will have a more difficult time communicating privately. In fact, whether or not the San Bernardino iPhone is hacked new ever-more-secure encryption schemes will be invented, and these schemes (whether governments like it or not) will be widely available to good people as well as to criminals. The history of encryption and decryption is a continuous and never-ending arms race. People who want to keep information hidden from prying eyes are incessantly inventing new ways to do so. At the same time there will always be coding experts who work on ways to defeat encryption. Message to those who are frustrated by this reality – get used to it.

In the United States the government sometimes strays and makes inappropriate demands on its citizens. In this case (as of this writing) Apple did the right thing and stood on principle.

*** See other entries at in “Monthly Columns.” ***

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