Last week, I was having dinner with a friend of mine, when the inevitable topic of Apple taking on the FBI came up. And while we discussed several themes, most of which I plan to cover here, one concept that really stood out was the potential for an Orwellian future. A future in which the feeling of being watched, whether real or not, ultimately shapes our language as a population. This might sound like science fiction, but the current trajectory of events happening in the U.S. may bring it to fruition, and a lot sooner than people expect.
- An atrocious act of terrorism was committed in San Bernardino, California on December 2, 2015.
- 14 people were killed and 22 were seriously injured.
- The two shooters, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, were pursued and killed in a shootout.
- The FBI got possesion of Farook’s company-issued iPhone 5c, which is password-protected.
- From the cooperation of San Bernardino county, the FBI got access to the iCloud backups of the phone.
- The FBI argues that they need more information which can be provided if they bypass the password on the device.
- While Apple has no access to these passwords, the FBI got a court order for Apple to build a custom version of iOS that removes the limit of incorrect password attempts before self-erasing and lowers the time delay between password entries.
- These changes are being requested so that the FBI can use a supercomputer to try all 10,000 combinations and brute-force into the phone.
- Apple is strongly opposed to this and is requesting the judge to not have them to do this for the FBI.
This case will be pivotal to our civil rights for years to come
At first glance, some of you may not immediately see the importance of what is happening. But make no mistake, this case will be pivotal to our civil rights for years to come, and there are a multitude of reasons why you should care. Should a company like Apple be put in a position to follow through with the FBI’s egregious demands, we risk having government agencies significantly increase their reach, vastly lower our personal security from both domestic and international threats, and potentially reshape how we live in this age of democratized technology.
With emotions running high, people may look at this case and argue that this is just one iPhone that the FBI is requesting Apple’s assistance on. You have to be a fool to believe that this is, and will be, the only one. Several requests similar to this have already been delivered to Apple, and I don’t imagine these requests slowing down any time soon. But you can’t blame government agencies like the FBI for this. They are testing the law.
In the eyes of the FBI, they are using the full extent of the law to pursue and bring criminals to justice. Simply put, they are doing their job. However, it is on us, and the people we elect, to define the true meaning of these laws and ensure that they are not being abused. If we stand idly by, or cannot remove ourselves from blinding emotions, we risk groups like the FBI misinterpeting the law and redefining it’s intended purpose.
A great example of this is the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act of 1970. The RICO act, as it’s more commonly known, was designed to stifle criminal organizations by giving agencies the ability to go after them a lot faster, and with a lot less friction. And while this sounded great, the RICO act was quickly exploited and, as argued by The Independent Review, “succeeded in blurring the lines between state and federal law enforcement and in overturning the protections inherent in the due-process guarantees of the U.S. Constitution.”
It won’t be Apple deciding when to cooperate
Should Apple give in and be forced to circumvent their securities for the FBI, the rate at which demands similar to this come to their doorstep will increase exponenetially. And more importantly, it won’t be Apple deciding when to cooperate. It will be agencies like the FBI, the NSA, or the CIA arbitrarily dictating the importance of these requests. Handing over this kind power will unavoidably lead to abuse and, like the RICO act, lead to a maligned form of due process.
Another fundamental concern is the lowering of personal security on our mobile devices. While purists may argue that Apple is not being forced to create a backdoor into their operating system, the fact of the matter is that they are being pushed to bypass the securities they’ve put in place. They’re being asked to create a way to get into their devices that wasn’t originally intended by them or their users. Once this method is created, it is out there, and cannot be protected. Not even by Apple.
Whether it’s hacker groups or questionable regimes, this golden key will be sought after. And while some parties, namely China, may seek to go through the same fromal route illustrated the FBI, the scarier scenario involves the requests we don’t even know about. Again, once this tool is built, it exists. It cannot be uncreated. And as a result, the current level of mobile security we benefit from is severely compromised.
There are bound to be skeptics whom argue that you shouldn’t fear prying eyes if you aren’t involved in any criminal acts. To these people, I point you this talk by Glenn Greenwald on why privacy matters. As highlighted in the video, I challenge these same people to share their personal passwords with the world if they truly stand by transperancy. If you don’t fear this loosening in digital security, why not share all your personal information, such as broswer history, medical records, and image library?
Hell, even the former head of the NSA believes that software backdoors would damage American security
To take such a binary stance on privacy and security is short-sighted and disingenuous. Most proponents of that argument fail to see how much security they’ve built around them. And if that flavour of transparency is a little extreme, at least consider the journalists, political activists, and other parties that have the most to lose in world with compromised mobile operating systems. Hell, even the former head of the NSA believes that software backdoors would damage American security.
Lastly, I wanted to bring back the idea of an Orwellian future made famous by George Orwell in the classic novel, 1984. Here, the narrator paints a bleak future of totalitarianism that exudes a feeling of continuous surveillance. This never-ending presence of “Big Brother” moulds the language and behaviour of a population to be in line with the ideals of those in power, or risk severe punishment. Scary stuff. But could something as specific as this court order given to Apple lead to such a future described in this book? Maybe.
If you knew that everything you do on any electronic device could be brought under scrutiny, and worse, incriminate you and your loved ones, wouldn’t you act with some form of restraint? And while we may scoff at this idea now, as we enjoy our Western freedoms, imagine those in places that aren’t so liberal. Places where even speaking against the party in power could have you thrown in jail. You see, threads of 1984 are already in play. It’s happening in many places around the world right now. And if we begin to accept that the manufacturers of our most personal devices should willfully hand over our information at the simple request of a government agency, then we stand to sacrifice our individuality and allow our free speech to deteriorate.
This isn’t about one iPhone
This isn’t about terrorism. This isn’t about saftey. And as much as the FBI wants you to believe it, this isn’t about one iPhone. This whole dilemma revolves around one idea: do we have a right to security? Experts have already echoed this same sentiment, and there’s no denying that many more will. We need to show courage and avoid succumbing to the pitfalls of rash decisions in the heat of the moment. If we wish to enjoy our liberties, we need to defend them passionately and with the upmost clarity. The late Justice Scalia once said, “There is nothing new in the realization that the Constitution sometimes insulates the criminality of a few in order to protect the privacy of us all.” We cannot allow fear mongerers lead us to believe that we must hand over our freedoms to ensure our protection. That’s when we are truly at risk.