Opinion: Apple vs the FBI is a war over privacy, and all of us could lose

This is not just about a single terrorist's phone, but the digital security and privacy of everyone

Apple may be powerful, but can it really resist the might of the US government?

Common sense. Two words with very different meanings to different people.

Take, for example, a locked iPhone 5c owned by a now-dead terrorist who gunned down innocent people in California last December. A US federal magistrate has ordered Apple to provide the FBI access to the device. Apple would write new software to brute-force the passcode lock and block auto-wipe procedures. The FBI would then fish around for evidence, the good guys would win, and everyone would go home happy. Common sense.

Except Apple refused to comply. CEO Tim Cook penned an open letter, detailing Apple’s reasoning. Countering those who’d argue unlocking the iPhone wouldn’t be a big deal, he noted encryption was part of everyday life, protecting everyone’s personal, financial and health data from those who’d wish to steal it. Arguing against those who pointed out Apple could make an exception to potentially uncover more about a clearly evil man, Cook maintained when creating a backdoor to circumvent security, everyone is at risk. Again: common sense.

This single case could be the thick end of a wedge that sees us all lose a little digital security

Predictably, people started taking sides. WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum backed Cook, as did Google CEO Sundar Pichai; the EFF and Harvard strongly rallied for Apple’s cause; Facebook and Twitter have now added their considerable voices to the pro-Apple perspective. Meanwhile, Donald Trump frothed that Apple’s position was “disgraceful” and that his supporters should boycott the company, and White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest fumed that Apple was not being asked to create a backdoor, but simply “for something that would have an impact on this one device”.

But it’s never about just one device or one order — it’s about precedent. US Congressman Ted Lieu elaborated, explaining that by compelling Apple to write new software, the government was “essentially making that company an arm of law-enforcement”. He asked where this kind of coercion would stop. Facebook creating analytics software to weed out criminals? Google supplying lists of everyone who’d searched for ISIL?

Cook worried one demand would lead to many more, because once created, a technique can be used again and again. And like Lieu, he was concerned once the government extended its reach regarding privacy, what would stop it going further? “The government could extend this breach of privacy and demand that Apple build surveillance software to intercept your messages, access your health records or financial data, track your location, or even access your phone’s microphone or camera without your knowledge,” he said.

That might sound alarmist, but this latest attack on privacy is just the latest skirmish in a battle that’s raged with increasing intensity in recent months. US states have introduced bills that aim to prohibit the sale of devices with unbreakable encryption. In the UK, Home Secretary Theresa May claims authorities don’t want to ban end-to-end encryption, nor even receive a key to said encryption. But they do ‘just’ want data made available in readable form on demand, which, you might notice, is incompatible with end-to-end encryption.

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Remember this? Seems it wasn't an idle promise

This circular illogic is increasingly twinned with emotionally charged justifications. Politicians talk of dealing with terrorists, paedophiles and human traffickers. If only these stubborn, obstructive technology companies would do what governments want, a magic wand would be waved, and the world would be safe.

Tabloids become apoplectic with fury. Apple’s commitment to safeguarding data and belief that “the contents of your iPhone are none of [Apple’s] business” (thereby ensuring even Apple can’t access them) count for nothing when editors desperate for eyeballs scream about the horrors of the world and pin them on locked iPhones. And this leaks through to those who have suffered tragedy, such as murdered Fusilier Lee Rigby’s uncle weighing in on the Apple case, saying the company is “protecting a murderer’s privacy at the cost of public safety”.

He reasoned if a court issued a warrant to search a house, people wouldn’t complain, and so why should a smartphone be any different? But emotion must not cloud reason, as unsympathetic as that might seem. Cook said a digital key left under the doormat would not just be there for the good guys — the bad guys would find it too. In other words, this isn’t like opening a single house to police, but potentially many millions of houses to anyone with the skills to find and utilise a skeleton key that could be duplicated and sent worldwide in an instant.

Whatever your thoughts on Apple, the company has taken a brave and just stance. It could have complied in silence, and no-one would have known any different. But Apple didn’t keep quiet, and instead is fighting for the future of digital privacy — your digital privacy; this despite risking alienation due to the crime the order it’s resisting relates to.

No doubt we’ll hear politicians and tabloids continue to yell that ‘something must be done’. But what must be done is stopping politicians and governments using atrocities as an excuse to erode civil liberties. As Cook said, we can have security measures without trampling on privacy rights. And that is common sense.