The Apple-FBI squabble over encryption signals a new age dawning.
One of the dead San Bernardino mass murderers, a terrorist committed to Islamic jihad, possessed a password-locked Apple iPhone. The FBI claims that it has not been able to crack it. A judge has ordered Apple to do the job.
Apple CEO Tim Cook resisted, in an open letter, directed mainly at his company’s clientele. “The United States government has demanded that Apple take an unprecedented step which threatens the security of our customers. We oppose this order, which has implications far beyond the legal case at hand.”
Some folks have made much of the fact that Apple had uncorked the security on iPhones in previous criminal cases, when asked by government, or directed by courts.
The Cupertino-based computer giant has committed itself to consumer privacy and security, recently developing what is commonly said to be the best data encryption system in the smartphone business.
So the company cannot simply comply with demands to “crack open” the digital contents of any current iPhone.
Which is why elements within federal law enforcement and anti-terrorism want the company to include a “back door” to allow “only” the Feds to access discrete technology of targeted suspects. It is a perilous demand — reminiscent of the “Clipper Chip” of the nineties — since (a) it would be costly and (b) almost certainly undermine security of the phones in general, allowing criminals and foreign governments to do what the U.S. Government could.
Specifically, according to Tim Cook, what the government is demanding is that Apple “make a new version of the iPhone operating system, circumventing several important security features, and install it on an iPhone recovered during the investigation. In the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession.”
In a colorful development of this case, John McAfee, originator of the first anti-virus software and a candidate for the U.S. Presidency under the Libertarian Party banner, has offered to unlock the iPhone himself. “With all due respect to Tim Cook and Apple, I work with a team of the best hackers on the planet,” he wrote in an op-ed at Business Insider. “I would eat my shoe on the Neil Cavuto show if we could not break the encryption on the San Bernardino phone.”
McAfee suspects that, if the FBI truly cannot hack its way into an iPhone, it is the result of their conformist hiring practices that spurns the best talent.
But lingering behind the challenge is another idea: the FBI may not really be interested in opening this particular iPhone.
It is merely using one killer’s phone as an excuse.
The preponderance of evidence suggests that what the FBI really wants is that “back door.” The government agency is, after all, seeking to command a private company to undermine its security protocols — a key feature of the company’s upscale consumer devices — and develop software that does not now exist.
All to allow the government entry into any device that it lays its hands on.
Put this in context. At present, American governments may commandeer almost any property pursuant to a criminal case, and use it in a court of law — if legally obtained. This includes your phone book, diary, and the contents of your safe.
Encrypt your phone book, or diary — that makes it harder. And the numbers on your safe? The government can break the safe, if it wants to. And it can hire cryptologists to look at your marks in your journals.
But there is no workaround for your brain. And you are constitutionally protected from self-incrimination. As is your spouse.
With encrypted data we get into a new area. It is now commonly said that digital devices serve as extensions of our brains. That gets more literally true every day. Some day they will directly connect to our brains, either hard-wired or wirelessly.
When that time comes, will the government want a backdoor Clipper-like chip — or a permanent software hack — into our brains?
Yes. It will.
But we must say no. Drawing the line at encryption of private information is a good place as any. If, McAfee argues, “the government succeeds in getting this back door, it will eventually get a back door into all encryption, and our world, as we know it, is over.”
And the greatness of the future is over.
Paul Jacob, February 2, 2016
This column first appeared at Townhall.com.