It’s not often that a tech story grabs my attention, but when I saw the headlines about Apple’s latest battle with the feds, I actually did a double take. This is probably because I’m a regular consumer of Apple products and the proud owner of an iPhone and MacBook, so anything dealing with device security is naturally going to peak my interest. Honestly, I just can’t run the risk of anyone hacking my multiple overseas bank account numbers or finding out where I buried the lost treasure of the Incas. Most of my friends and family consider me a technology geek, but really I’m an amateur masquerading as an expert. I know my way around smartphones, laptops and a few design programs, but when it comes down to it, I’m just a nerd.
Anyway, as you’ve probably heard by now, the Federal Bureau of Investigations is apparently in possession of an iPhone 5C belonging to Syed Farook, the deranged terrorist who — along with his wife Tashfeen Malik — slaughtered 14 people and wounded 22 in San Bernardino, CA on December 2 of last year. The phone reportedly belonged to Farook’s employer, the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health, and the nice folks there have given the FBI permission to examine it. (How sweet of them.) Of course, there’s the pesky little issue of having to crack the phone's four-digit passcode, which Farook obviously took to his grave when he died in that subsequent shootout with law enforcement. As any iPhone user knows — paranoid girlfriends, overbearing parents, cheating spouses and the like — it’s practically impossible to access anything on that phone without the passcode and, unfortunately for the feds, Apple stopped storing their customers’ passcodes back in 2014 for security reasons. So, the Justice Department is essentially asking Apple to invent some new software that would allow them to circumvent the phone’s security features. Magistrate Judge Sherry Pym issued an order on Tuesday mandating that Apple play ball with the feds or suffer the legal consequences.
Naturally, Apple has refused, hinting that they will appeal the order, and CEO Timothy Cook released a detailed letter to customers explaining why he will not be complying with the court's demands — basically a polite way of telling the authorities to piss off. Cook says this sort of thing would set a dangerous precedent and, were Apple to build a “backdoor” program to the iPhone, it could ultimately lead to criminal hackers using such a program for their own malicious intentions. (Or allow the federal government to abuse the power of this software.) To be fair, Apple did give the F.B.I. information from the phone that was backed up and stored on its iCloud service, although Farook’s latest back up was about a month before the shooting.
Now, I’m sure I don’t have to point out how hilariously ironic and pathetic it is that our highly advanced federal government is having to literally ask Apple for help breaking into this phone. I mean, in a post-Edward Snowden world, one would think the feds hack into our phones on a regular basis. They’re reading our text messages, listening to our phone calls and tracking our every move — or so we’ve been told. This is the same government that can engage in cyber warfare with hostile nations, protect nuclear launch codes with highly advanced encryption and launch astronauts to the surface of the moon, but when it comes to cracking an iPhone, they have to resort to calling the Geek Squad at the local Best Buy? Weird.
Speaking of Snowden, it seems he’s on Apple’s side in this whole thing. (Shocking, right?)
Let’s be honest here though: it’s pure insanity for the federal government to expect a private company that manufactures and sells electronic devices like smartphones and computers to agree to violate the digital privacy rights of its customers. I don’t say this as a fan of Apple products, mind you. I say this as a fan of a little document called The Constitution. The Fourth Amendment is pretty clear on this:
…the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things being seized.”
Tashfeen Malik (left) and Syed Rizwan Farook (right): a married couple who left their baby with grandma while they carried out the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil since the September 11, 2001 attacks. Together, they massacred 14 people and wounded several at a holiday party at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, CA.
It should really go without saying that the ultimate goal of this amendment is to protect people’s right to privacy from government overreach and arbitrary intrusion. Obviously, the Founders didn’t foresee the invention of iPhones or personal computers (which I would argue fall under the classification of “effects”), but they did foresee the possibility that a government with too much power could easily violate the security and privacy of its citizens. If the feds want records of Farook’s phone calls, they should be getting a search warrant and going to AT&T, Verizon or whichever cellular provider the phone is listed with. Sure, there might be other information stored on the device, but the fact that it is there and may be useful for national security purposes does not outweigh or negate the Fourth Amendment or mean that we should risk setting such a dangerous precedent. This is not a slippery slope argument, it’s an argument based on the Constitution and actual security.
If a government can require or force a private tech company to create a specific software to decrypt a specific device, where does it end? What other capabilities or services could a court require a company to provide, perform or invent in the name of ‘national security’ or ‘law enforcement?’ Will the feds be spying on us through our own webcams? Archiving copies of every text message sent from every smartphone in the country? And who determines when and how and to what extent the federal government will or will not use such powerful decryption software? And who determines the government’s definition of ‘probable cause’ in all of these scenarios, were that technology to exist? I’d say these are all questions we should consider before letting the government have a master key to every iPhone on the planet.
The Fourth Amendment means something.
So does Apple encryption.
It has to remain locked and free from threats both foreign and domestic. Whether you like Apple or not, they’re on the right side of history here.
Either everyone gets security, or no one does.
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