Upsetting the Applecart

Upsetting the Applecart

Donald Trump called for a boycott, although only after he had “just thought of it.”[1] Bill Gates, initially at least, thought it was fully justified. Edward Snowden called it “the most important tech issue in a decade” and of course for Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, it is not just an issue of “privacy as a fundamental human right”, but indeed an issue of personal security versus public security.[2] It is risking “something more important than money – we risk our way of life.”[3] Most of Silicon Valley has rallied to Tim Cook’s support. Naturally, the FBI and government think otherwise. But what does the public think about it?

As far as the immediate issue is concerned it is all about whether or not the iPhone of Syed Rizwan Farook could contain vital information about his act of terrorism, apparently in sympathy with ISIS, in the county of San Bernardino, California. The federal authorities obtained a court injunction under the All Writs Act of 1789 that in essence gives US government agencies the right, in the absence of any specific law, to demand access to data when issues of national security are involved. According to the federal authorities, this is a reasonable demand and a reasonable use of the Act in this specific case. But it isn’t quite that specific. The federal case was upset by a subsequent ruling in the New York Eastern District court which turned down a request by the federal authorities in a drugs case to require Apple to access data on an iPhone using the same All Writs Act. The judge ruled that such an expansive interpretation of the Act would “cast doubt on its constitutionality if adopted.”[4] Round One to Apple and a raspberry to the Feds.

So much for the law and its interpretation. What about the privacy, private and public security issues, which are after all what most folk are concerned with. Apple lost no time in pointing out that the owners of the iPhone, the San Bernardino public health department, had chosen not to pay for the $4 a month mobile device management system that would have opened the phone, while the Feds had messed up when trying to crack the phone’s password by instructing San Bernardino to change its iCloud password. Now they wanted Apple to write a code, basically a new operating system that would by-pass the mechanism which wipes the data from the phone after 10 failed password attempts. Slightly hypocritical of Apple to say you could have opened it easily, but we won’t help you?[5]

So, story so far: the federal authorities say this is a one-off for this particular phone given the terrorist implications. Everyone knows this is not a one-off as the drugs case illustrates. Does that invalidate the Fed’s argument, not about the use of the law, but about the rights and wrongs of the case? Apple does not appear to deny the reasons for wanting to crack open the phone, but they argue that once such a new code is written it cannot be unwritten. Like the H-bomb, once one country or person has it then many will have it, and the world moves onto a new level of risk and insecurity. The argument appears to be in the best traditions of sophistry. H-bombs threaten life; insecure iPhones do not, and may even protect life. The difference, of course, is between private and public security, as indeed Apple has argued. The Apple argument grows stronger when it has to be admitted that iPhones today, Internet-of-Things tomorrow, and so on. It is the ubiquity that gives rise to genuine fears. If the insecurity stopped with iPhones, only Apple’s share of the smartphone market would be at stake. President Obama has added his thoughts: ““It’s fetishizing our phones above every other value and that can’t be the right answer. I suspect the answer is going to come down to how do we create a system that the encryption is as strong as possible, the key is as secure as possible, it is accessible by the smallest number of people possible for a subset of issues that we agree are important.” [6]

The arguments about how important is personal privacy and security versus public is, to put it bluntly, irresolvable. It will always be a balance and the balance will shift according to circumstances. Governments will always exaggerate and vendors will always downplay. Technophiles and anti-state conspiracy theorists will always get indignant, xenophobes and nationalists will always champion state security, and most of the rest of us will either be bemused or blasé. But for the immediate future, one question seems to hang in the balance, namely if Apple are so very concerned that once they have written an un-password code they will be the subject to continual hacking attempts, why cannot very ingenious hackers write such a code themselves?  And according to Wired magazine, not only has one Israeli company called Cellebrite done just that, but the FBI even has a contract with it.[7] Of course, it is entirely possible that the NSA has done likewise and do not want to reveal it by sharing with the FBI. Anything is possible in this weird world of insecurity. Recently, FBI Director James Comey, argued before the House Judiciary Committee hearing on encryption that he had faith in Apple’s ability to safeguard any iPhone password by-pass programme.[8] That may prove to be a moot point. But at least Donald Trump seems to be on the side of openness and transparency on behalf of public security, which is probably going to swing a lot of serious-minded people to support Apple. I just thought of that.

[1] AFP News 20 February 2016, “Trump calls for Apple boycott”,

[2] See all these quotes in the Wall Street Journal 19-21st Feb 2016, p.A5

[3] Financial Times 20/21 February 2016, “Apple Chief takes the fight over privacy to Washington”, p.11

[4] New York Times 29 February 2016, “Apple Wins Ruling in New York iPhone Hacking Order”,

[5] New York Times 1 March 2016, “F.B.I. Error Locked San Bernardino Attacker’s iPhone”

[6] ABC News, “President Obama Urges Americans Not to Be ‘Absolutist’ in FBI, Apple Debate”

[7] Wired Magazine 2 March 2016, “How the Feds Could Get Into iPhones Without Apple’s Help”

[8] The Wall Street Journal 3 March 2016, “FBI: ‘Mistake’ Made Over iPhone”

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