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Secret Freedom

The NY Times published an opinion piece today on the confrontation between the US government and Apple over the forensic access to the encrypted data on Syed Farook’s cell phone – Farook being the perpetrator of the San Bernardino attacks in solidarity with ISIS.

The bug-a-boo raised by Apple is that if the accede to the US government’s request, a legal precedent will be established that will allow any government to demand that Apple assist in unlocking the contents of a cell phone. Included is that suggestion that any hack provided by Apple could make it into the wild, allowing anyone to unlock the data on any cell phone.

Let’s be specific about the details: the iPhone has a security feature that automatically erases all of your data if you fail to enter the encryption password correctly some number of times in a row. Now this is an interesting feature – Allah forbid that you should forget your password. It would seem that it would be in the interests of the owner to have some recovery mechanism. And after the incident, obviously the US government has legal possession of the phone. So why, as the owner, can’t it recover the data it owns?

The op-ed once again raises the specter of Edward Snowden, claiming that Snowden demonstrated that the government was spying on US citizens. As I recall, Snowden did nothing of the sort – what he showed is that the US government placed inadequate controls on access to surveillance systems by unauthorized subcontractors.

So I find it disingenuous that Apple refuses to assist the government with its investigation. Apple doesn’t have to release any code to the government – it could take the cell phone into its facilities, apply the patch, and provide the government with the data. Obviously, this is something that it can do currently for anyone, given sufficient inducement. Is the US government really out of line in its demands?

Being that Apple is big and bad enough to stand up to the US government, obviously it believes that it can stand up to the Chinese government. Or could it? Let’s say that China threatened to terminate production of iPhones in China if Apple didn’t break the encryption on a dissident’s cell phone. What would Apple do? Given that the principal driver for Apple’s stance is profit (which is why they outsourced to China in the first place), it might actually be that Apple would simply cave quietly behind the scenes.

Which is another open question: the big data services collect huge amounts of information on their customers. What do they do with it? Frustrating the government’s request to have access to data it owns is an amusing diversionary tactic. While Microsoft has large corporations looking over its shoulder,  nobody monitors Apple’s use of your data, nor Google’s use. Shouldn’t we be demanding some oversight?

I would be less skeptical of Apple’s motives if Cook was willing to recognize that there is a legitimate concern regarding information secrecy. I might argue that attempts to strengthen safeguards in the aftermath of the judge’s order is tantamount to aiding and abetting. If Apple clearly stated an ethical position, with guidelines regarding the conditions under which it will cooperate with governments to recover data, then I think that they would further the debate. As it is, I am afraid that he’s pandering to those that have good reasons for wanting to keep secrets – the criminal set.

3 thoughts on “Secret Freedom

  1. Another nice piece, and a hard question. We like your argument that given a crime past tense, the government owns the cell phone. What they do not own is Apple, nor the right to make companies agents of the government. And for the Chinese, Apple might have their cell phones made in a free nation from then on, having learned the hard way that all money is not green.

    We are absolutely sick from the things we see about the failure of internet integrity and the threat to national security, a dawning recognition in your penultimate paragraph. Facebook collects faces of one year olds, all people, without consent, and contrary to law in some states, despite human trafficking, and we blink. We will torture for national security reasons, but will not say no to Google and Facebook, but flatter the Internet Billionaires. We blog often on this, and no one hears us, except perhaps the president.

    There is cur5rently no oversight if the NSA, and no recourse when these powers are abused, as by organized crime corrupted agents. Congress is so intimidated by the Feds they will do nothing, and the agencies literally do whatever they want, hopefully in the interests of national security.

    • You raise many challenging issues. What disturbs me about the current exchange between Apple and the Feds is that the dialog is so polarized. I would feel a greater sense of trust in these institutions if their leaders would discuss these issue openly and with a sense that they see each others’ points and are working to try to solve problems together. Your comment fills out the issues of concern, and it seems that there aren’t any hard and fast rules here.

    • Right, if I were Apple I might do something in certain extreme particular circumstances, but if they want to take over the company, I might just give it to them. It is the same with the mob, like the Purple Gang in the Cleaners and Dyers war in the 20’s. The only way out of extortion was to back out, not smash into them. An entrepreneur can usually make a fresh start.

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