Apple vs. the FBI: everything you wanted to know about the battle over encryption

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“It’s not about us trying to get backdoor..It’s a term that confuses me frankly, I don’t want a door, I don’t want a window, I don’t want a sliding glass door. I would like people to comply with court orders” — FBI Director James Comey.

A defiant James Comey said these words well over a month before the general public would become aware of the behind -the-scenes war being waged for nothing less than an iPhone 5c.  The general public paid little notice them,  just like in July of last year and in October of 2014. But, as of last Tuesday, the incredibly technical debate over encryption became a household item for discussion all across America. Maybe we should have been paying closer attention.

It’s now common knowledge that, on February 16, 2016, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, through the US Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles, filed a 40-page motion to have the courts force Apple to make a version of the iOS operating system that would bypass built-in encryption mechanisms and allow investigators to get into San Bernardino shooter’s, Syed Farook, iPhone 5c.

Apple’s CEO Tim Cook replied in turn by publishing an open letter to customers, where he said “The U.S. government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create. They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone.”

The moves and counter moves between the FBI and Apple continued throughout the week, as they each tried to frame the narrative to best suit their needs.

The FBI has gone for the classic ‘in support of the victims’ story, attempting to frame this court order and its desire for an iOS decryption “key” as overdue justice for the shooting victims. They claim their needs fit the uniquely sensitive nature of the San Bernardino case. In the context of the worst year of mass shootings in American history, this has become a particularly strong and convincing narrative.

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Apple has in comparison taken the approach of framing the debate in the context of ‘being against an aggressor’; the FBI. Tim Cook’s impassioned letter, a 30 minute interview with ABC, and public statements since the case burst open, have all pleaded with the public to not underestimate the dangerous precedent of coercing a technology company to write software for the government, much less software specifically designed to break the very safety mechanisms customers have come to expect. Tim Cook calls it, “creating a cancer” for his company’s products. Apple’s argument is technical, difficult to digest, and, by definition, in opposition. They are at a discernable disadvantage.

But which of the two narratives should we believe, and, regardless of our opinion of them, which one is winning in the court of public opinion?

In order to pick a side and understand the core issues at play here, which are not about terrorism, we need to get through some techno-babble.

For starters, at the moment, its not technically possible for Apple to just open up the San Bernardino phone for the FBI. In order to bypass Farook’s passcode, Apple would have to create a special version of their operating system that does away with the limit on the numbers of attempts one can make on a user’s passcode before erasing all the of the data. As of this moment, Apple doesn’t have, and doesn’t want to have, that version of its operating system in its possession.

Apple’s refusal to make this neutered version of iOS is decidedly not devoid of financial considerations, but the company’s greatest worry by far is actually the implications for its user’s security. As over a dozen MIT professors made clear in their report, Keys Under Doormats: Mandating insecurity by requiring government access to all data and communications, “…The damage that could be caused by law enforcement exceptional access requirements would be even greater today than it would have been 20 years ago.., it is doubtful that companies like Facebook and Twitter would even exist.” The crux of their argument is best distilled by Chris Plant’s podcast, where they make the comparison to the federal government having a backdoor to our phones like having keys under doormats for policemen who no longer have keys. 

Apple filed a counter-motion against the DOJ on the 25th, using the points above as the core of their argument.

This is not a case about one isolated iPhone. Rather, this case is about the Department of Justice and the FBI seeking through the courts a dangerous power that Congress and the American people have withheld: the ability to force companies like Apple to undermine the basic security and privacy interests of hundreds of millions of individuals around the globe. — Apple

Despite the academic consensus and overwhelming support from the rest of the industry, the FBI and DOJ are not backing down.

To understand why, one need look no further than T.C. Sotekk’s editorial on TheVerge, Apple’s reality distortion field is losing against the terrorism distortion field, when he says “Steve Jobs may have chucked a sledgehammer at Big Brother in 1984 when he was fighting IBM, but in 2016 Apple is fighting a very different set of acronyms. The FBI is making a case many people find compelling, and Apple’s success is far from guaranteed.”

However self assured the DOJ and FBI feel with their narrative of counter-terrorism and justice for the victims or horrendous, inexcusable, acts, they might be surprised that this fight may not be worth having. Not unlike in the infancy of the internet, Americans tend to have a reliable sixth sense when it comes to protecting their privacy, especially when it sets a high political price for failing to do so. I wouldn’t be so surprised if, less than a year from now, headlines will be writing to an entirely different tune about FBI director James Comey.

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