The ongoing fight over whether Apple should open up the San Bernadino shooter’s iPhone for Uncle Sam isn’t a conservative or liberal issue, though if you fired up your computer or smartphone in the last few weeks you’ve likely seen it framed that way. Nor is it about one iPhone.
The fight is principally about civil liberties -- those things guaranteed to us by the Bill of Rights. It’s about privacy and security. And it’s about every iPhone in the world.
But let’s rewind.
Law enforcement’s push against tech has been a long time coming and so has the evolving politicization of that conversation.
When Apple released a software update back in 2014, Tim Cook, the CEO, also announced that the company would no longer be able to access devices.
For the first time, that meant all personal information -- photos, messages, financial and health data, contacts, etc. -- would be completely encrypted by default.
However, without access to the information, that also meant the company would no longer be able to respond to warrants, which it had done multiple times in the past.
And so began the encryption debate for Apple.
At first the iPhone was decried by then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director James Comey, who cautioned that it would impede police officers’ ability to do their job. Chicago’s chief of police even predicted that it would become the go-to phone for pedophiles.
But when those tactics failed, high-ranking law enforcement officials stepped it up a notch.
Three days after 129 people were killed and hundreds more were injured in Paris, John Brennan, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, exploited the tragedy on national television to make a political point about the mild Patriot Act reforms and its soon-to-end bulk data collection program. In doing so, he attempted to shift blame from intelligence agencies to the public’s privacy concerns.
Even when it was unclear whether the terrorists used encryption technology, which has been around for decades, lawmakers such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) used the tragedy as a way to attack encryption and call for mandatory back doors.
“If only we had more information,” the emotional appeal of the argument has gone.
In many ways, the current legal scuffle surrounding the Bernadino shooter’s phone is just a logical extension of this ongoing conversation.
Currently, the phone is sitting in some awfully lit office. Law enforcement would like to get into it, but the usual methods of launching tens of thousands of guesses to break the passcode would only serve to erase all of its contents because of an enabled security feature.
Some of this is the FBI’s fault.
When the FBI got ahold of Syed Rizwan Farook’s phone, after he helped kill 14 people in the December attack, an agent mistakenly reset the iPhone’s iCloud password, thinking she would be able to gain access another way.
Instead, the phone became locked. And now nobody has the key.
So now, using the All Writs Act of 1789, the FBI is demanding Apple create a side-operating system that would allow agents to disable the phone’s 10-guess limit and then brute force their way in.
The bureau’s argument is that this is just one iPhone. But it’s not.
The tool they are asking Apple to build could be used as a backdoor to every iPhone in the world.
Surely law enforcement would benefit from having a tool like that. But here’s the deal: Allowing the FBI to force Apple to create the tool would be a bad, bad idea.
It would undermine some of the most important mobile security developments in recent years, putting financial and personal data in jeopardy.
A government win in this case would almost certainly lead to other governments demanding access, which could be used by some to spy on dissidents or protesters.
With things around us becoming increasingly connected with the advent of the so-called “Internet of Things,” it could set a chilling precedent for encrpytion, which could end privacy and online security as we know it.
And more importantly, it would force a private company to become a government investigator, which is the sort of undemocratic demand that would create a domino effect for future case.
The bottom line here is this: In times of fear we should be worried about strengthening, not weakening, the technologies on which we increasingly rely. And we should resist the old temptation to give up our liberties for a false sense of security.
I know it’s hard. We’ve been doing it forever. There was the Sedition Act of 1912 that prohibited free speech, there was the executive order that sent hundreds of thousands of Japanese Americans to war camps and there was the Patriot Act, which was manipulated to allow the NSA spying on millions of Americans.
But when we give into these temptations, we gain nothing and each time we lose a significt part of our collective humanity.
Perhaps that’s why a judge in a similar New York case called the government’s argument “absurd” and denied its demands for a private investigative assit.
So, as the Apple-FBI debate continues to unfold, my only hope is that future judges remain just as sensible.