25 February 2016

Why you should join Apple in the fight for privacy


The dispute between Apple and the FBI is not about law enforcement being able to access the contents of a single terrorist’s iPhone. It’s about creating a legal precedent, which has the potential to affect our entire digital eco-system.

In a column earlier this week, Abby Schachter, US editor of CapX, claimed that Apple is on the wrong side of the fight against terrorism. This hyperbole is just plain wrong. Apple is not just standing up for privacy, it’s fighting for the very foundation of our digital world.

Law enforcement requires the ability, under certain circumstances, to compel individuals and organizations to hand over evidence pertaining to a crime. Such court orders are relatively routine. But the FBI’s latest request goes well beyond this.

Apple is not in possession of the data on Syed Farook’s phone. So far from requesting they hand over information they already possess, the FBI is in effect trying to conscript Apple. They want to force them to create unique software—effectively a hacking tool—in order to circumvent the security measures on one of their products.

This is clearly unprecedented, and there is certainly an arguable case that it places an “undue burden” on Apple—which would make the government’s use of the 18th Century All Writs Act invalid. This is a decision for the courts, and it’s largely beside the point.

The real question is the effect compliance with the FBI’s request will have on the digital world.

Apple has received at least 12 similar requests since September last year. And these aren’t terrorism related cases—one is in search of evidence about a suspect’s possession or sale of methamphetamine.

No, Apple is not on the side of drug dealers. What they understand—and what Abby Schachter apparently doesn’t—is the precedent this case would set.

If Apple is forced to comply with the FBI’s court order, then they will be inundated with similar requests from dozens of government departments; as will other tech firms.

Having to comply with these orders will create an incentive for Apple to weaken the security measures on their products. This is because strong encryption will result in more company resources being expended to comply with government requests.

The alternative is the creation of a so-called “backdoor” in Apple’s software, which would give law enforcement easy access to data. This is what David Cameron has proposed mandating in the UK.

But you can’t create a magic “backdoor” that is only accessible to law enforcement. A “backdoor” is a vulnerability in the design of the software, and all vulnerabilities are at risk of being exploited. Both of these options will undermine the data-security of hundreds of millions of law abiding citizens. Not to mention the security of sensitive information held by governments and corporations around the world.

Worst of all, it risks undermining public trust in the ability of companies to protect users data. It is this trust that is the very basis of our digital world. After all, it’s encryption that protects credit card transaction, and global commerce all around the globe. There is no knowing what would happen if confidence in encryption is undermined.

Terrorism is a significant issue. Groups like ISIS present a very real threat to America, and the entire western world.

Governments should have appropriate tools to combat this threat. But this doesn’t mean we should undermine the very basis of our digital world.

Let’s not forget that intelligence agencies have consistently and repeatedly requested new and increased powers, and there is no evidence that it has made us any safer.

The NSA’s metadata collection program, revealed by Edward Snowden, is one such example. For months the intelligence community, and their surrogates, claimed that the program was essential to national security. That is until the White House’s own report admitted that the powers hadn’t prevented a single terrorist attack.

The government should have narrow, targeted powers, to fight terrorism. Not powers that risk undermining the security of everyone’s private data.

By opposing the FBI’s demands, Apple is fighting for the very foundation of our digital world. This is not only justified, it ought to be commended.

Patrick Hannaford is the Editor of Young Voices.