Apple have refused an FBI request to help crack the iPhone of a terrorist.
Ray McClure, the uncle of murdered soldier Drummer Lee Rigby has said that Apple is protecting terrorists, and that ‘life comes before privacy’.
I think Drummer Rigby’s uncle is mistaken, both in his assumptions about what Apple is technically capable of, and the moral trade-off between life and privacy.
We need to understand that Apple are not being asked to decrypt just the iPhone of one particular terrorist. They are not like a landlord with a spare key that will open a particular door. If they were, then there would be legitimacy in Mr McClure’s complaints. A judge could examine the particular case at hand, and then sign a warrant that permitted entry to the property or decryption of a device. Targeted surveillance and privacy violations are a legitimate law enforcement tool.
But that is not the request. Instead, the FBI have asked Apple to hack their entire operating system in such a way that would enable them to by-pass encryption on any iPhone. Including mine.
And I do not consent to this. Even if it scuppers the FBI’s chances of catching more terrorists. If Apple did acquiesce to this request, there is a good chance I would stop using their products. The company (which is, after all, not a real person but a collection of people legally bound to maximise shareholder value) therefore have a strong incentive not to comply with the G-Man’s demands. The criminal investigation is now certainly more difficult that it would have been. And I, the Apple iPhone customer, am completely responsible for that.
And yet I shall sleep well tonight, for several reasons.
First, hacking the iPhone now guarantees it will be hacked again later. Phones will be hacked by the United States security services, who have a long history of overreach when it comes to invading people’s privacy. It would be stupid to trust them to use this technology only to catch terrorists, pædophiles and drug cartels.
Second, other governments will demand the decryption keys, the new operating system, or whatever technology Apple develops in co-operation with the FBI. China, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other human rights abusing regimes will make it a condition of doing business in their country.
And when those countries have that technology, Mr McClure’s ‘life comes before privacy’ becomes utterly meaningless. Because in those countries a lack of privacy can often lead to a loss of liberty, or a loss of life, at the hands of the state.
Next, the technology will be compromised by criminals. Identities will be stolen, people will be virtually mugged… and those who are actually mugged for their phone will also lose their personal data too For those people, the life that they lead, which Mr McClure is so eager to protect, will be rendered significantly shittier.
In addition, businesses will lose millions of dollars and pædophiles will find it easier to spy on kids.
Finally, precisely zero terrorists will be caught by this ploy. Apple developers are presumably some of the highest paid coders in the world. They have collectively been unable to secure any version of their operating system against determined amateurs. Every major release of iOS (we are on version 9.x at the moment) has been ‘Jailbroken’—that is, hackers have been able to bypass Apple’s strict controls over what can be installed on the device. So if Apple provides law enforcement with a way to always break the iPhone’s standard encryption, the bad guys will simple install non-standard encryption onto their devices and counter-terrorism efforts will be set back even further.
Hacking the iPhone will expose everyone to government intrusion and criminal predators, leading in many cases to a ruined life or loss of liberty. And it won’t help catch terrorists. I’m glad to have used my substantial economic power to block this law enforcement request and I shall sleep very well this evening.