Why We Should All Care About Apple vs. The FBI

An article by: David Tan, Chief Technology Officer, CHIPS Technology Group

In case you missed it, there is a debate raging between privacy advocates, law enforcement personnel and citizens everywhere over the encrypted content of an iPhone used by one of the shooters in last year’s mass killing / terrorist attack in California.  The FBI has the phone, but can’t unlock it, and since it has the latest version of the Apple iOS on it, the content is all very securely encrypted.  There is a standing court order in place attempting to force Apple to unlock the phone.  A court order that Apple is refusing.  This has all resulted in a very public, very political battle between all parties.

On the surface, this seems like a no-brainer.  Unlock the phone, gather the evidence and thwart off any possible future attacks.  Who could argue against this?  I’m certainly not.  It would seem like anyone opposing this is some sort of an anarchist or has something to hide of their own.  Heck if the FBI asked I’d gladly hand them my unlocked iPhone, laptop, computer, whatever, if they feel it would help in any sort of criminal investigation.

There is much more to the story than appears however.  You see Apple can’t just magically unlock the phone.  They would need to build in a backdoor – a master key for all their phones to be unlocked.  Sure, they could build it, install onto just this phone, then “throw it away” but what happens next week or next month when they get the next court order?  Do they start from scratch?  No, once they build it, this backdoor is here to stay.  So again, why is that a problem?

Many privacy advocates fear the thought of government and law enforcement having this level of access to any of our information.  While I see that argument, it’s not what I’m here to talk about.  Again, I’m not concerned about the FBI looking through my mail.  If they want to know that I have Tom Brady starting for my fantasy football team this weekend or that I just spent $750 on orchestra tickets to Hamilton on Broadway, be my guest!  It was well worth it by the way.  What I’m worried about is who else gets access to this golden ticket.

This isn’t the first time something like this has been debated.  In 1993, the NSA created an encryption device with a built-in backdoor that was intended to be adopted by all telecommunications companies called the Clipper Chip.  In 1994, a hacker published a paper detailing the flaws and vulnerabilities of that chip.  Fortunately, privacy advocates and legal roadblocks kept it from becoming mainstream, or all of this sensitive, encrypted communication would have become completely open to the public.

That was 20 years ago, right?  That could never happen now.  Wrong, think again.  The minute this backdoor gets created, it exists forever, and it becomes the single biggest hacking target in the history of the internet.  The government can keep it safe though, I mean they’re the government and have unlimited resources.  Just like they kept the IRS from being hacked and the Office of Personnel Management which contains data about background checks on every government employee and contractor.  They probably wanted to keep those safe too.  Not to mention the fact that as soon as they do this, Apple might as well change their logo from an apple to a great big target.

Face it, the potential for this to fall into the wrong hands is just too great of a risk to take.  This type of backdoor exposes all our personal, financial, business and otherwise private data to the prying eyes of whoever is capable of installing a Tor browser and navigating the dark web – trust me it’s not that hard.  What’s worse is that it doesn’t even really protect us from the criminals!  There are dozens of apps in the Apple app store that offer end-to-end encrypted communications that wouldn’t be compromised even if the government got into these phones.  Is the government going to go after each one of them as well?  They can try but most of them are based outside the U.S. and the reach of court orders.

Apple is in a no-win situation here.  I completely understand the outcry from politicians and citizens over them appearing to not do the right thing.  The truth is they aren’t only doing the right thing; they are doing the only thing.  Apple is putting themselves on the line to protect us all.  While I’ll admit I haven’t always been their biggest fan, and still find many of their business practices deplorable, they need to be commended for the stand they are taking on all our parts.