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FBI v. Apple: What’s at stake in encryption fight

Shutterstock/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

If you’ve had an ear to the Internet over the past week or so, you’ve likely heard the rising rumblings over encryption, a debate that has swiftly moved from inner techie circles to the mainstream due to a historic legal clash between Apple and the FBI.

Last Tuesday, a federal court ordered Apple to comply with an FBI request to assist the agency in decrypting the contents of the iPhone 5C belonging to Syed Rizwan Farook, better known as the San Bernadino shooter. (Technically, the phone was property of his employer, the San Bernadino County Department of Public Health.)

The text of the order addresses many of the specific obstacles facing agents attempting to unlock the phone: Only a limited number of password requests are allowed before the data is wiped, those attempts must be entered manually (so as to discourage “brute force” access from external password-cracking software), and even once you get past the password, there is the Secure Enclave, a wholly separate computer housed in newer iPhones that negotiates the application of encryption keys to decode data.

But the main gist of the order is that the FBI wants Apple to create a version of its operating system (what one blogger has already christened “FBiOS”) that would only operate on the confiscated phone and would allow agents and their very powerful computers to more easily crack its password and access its contents.


The court order was issued not through any contemporary cybersecurity laws, but rather a broad reading of the All Writs Act of 1789, which permits that “the Supreme Court and all courts established by Act of Congress may issue all writs necessary or appropriate in aid of their respective jurisdictions and agreeable to the usages and principles of law.” Apple CEO Tim Cook, who called this interpretation “unprecedented,” was not having it.


Cook posted a fiery statement to the Apple website announcing his company’s intention to fight what he called an “overreach by the U.S. Government” (the court has since extended its stated deadline to Feb. 26), arguing the creation of such a “backdoor” to iOS was “too dangerous to create” and would undo years of encryption development, as well as clear a sizable cache of public trust.

“In the physical world,” Cook warned, “it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks — from restaurants and banks to stores and homes,” he wrote. “No reasonable person would find that acceptable.”

As the letter went viral across social media, some read it as a brave salvo from corporate America against a government whose surveillance antics of late and presumed entitlement to personal data have made such a standoff all but inevitable. Others have dismissed Cook’s statement as mere PR padding: preemptive protection against public backlash after the FBI ignored Apple’s wishes to submit its demands under seal. Among these critics is the Justice Department, which in a motion filed Friday ripped Apple’s defiance as “based on its concern for its business model and public brand marketing strategy.”

It’s no small detail that while Apple has assisted law enforcement investigations in the past by extracting data from still-locked phones, more recent versions of the operation system (iOS 8 and up) make such extraction techniques impossible, as the phone’s password and encryption keys are tied together. As such, the FBI’s request amounts to a demand that Apple create technology to destroy its technology, or as Cook put it, “hack our own users.”


To some, including law professor and cybersecurity expert Andrew Keane Woods, this is where things get dangerous. “If code is speech [which Bernstein v. United States confirmed in 1996], and the government is compelling Apple to code, then it looks an awful lot like the government is compelling speech,” wrote Woods in a blog post.

And as a growing public gaze volleys back and forth between Washington and Silicon Valley, more tech biggies have signed on to the opposition. Both Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai and WhatsApp founder Jan Koum came out in support of Apple Wednesday, with Koum writing on Facebook that “Today our freedom and our liberty is at stake.” Even rival Microsoft indirectly expressed solidarity through an anti-backdoor statement from Reform Government Surveillance, a coalition it cofounded that also includes big names like AOL, Evernote, Dropbox, LinkedIn, and Yahoo!.

This widespread support has given rise to a rare, chummy consensus among tech giants, but it also demonstrates how far beyond one’s seedier text messages the issues of encryption extend. As more and more of our most personal data goes digital, the safe passage of data through encryptions has massive implications in everything from personal and home security to medicine and finance. In the still-nascent realm of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, encryption itself is the engine of the economy.


This noisy clash between monster institutions (both claiming to be our protectors) can make it hard to parse the incredibly personal stakes of the encryption debate: a determination of where our privacy begins and ends. And the political potential of those stakes is already being tapped, nay, drained.

“Who do they think they are?” asked Donald Trump, referring either to Apple or the millions of iPhone owners who’d prefer their private pics stay forever private. On Friday, he urged a boycott of the company at a rally in South Carolina by fundamentally misunderstanding the problem out loud: “What I think you ought to do is boycott Apple until such time they give that security number.”

Meanwhile, another candidate, Libertarian Party contender, anti-virus pioneer, and apparent hacker denmaster John McAfee published a far more dire forecast of the potential consequences in an op-ed: “No matter how you slice this pie, if the government succeeds in getting this back door, it will eventually get a back door into all encryption, and our world, as we know it, is over.”

As a solution, he offered to get Apple off the hook and put his own team of hackers to work on cracking the San Bernadino iPhone (“It will take us three weeks”), promising to eat his shoe on Neil Cavuto’s show if he failed. Of course, if he succeeds, the best bet for the rest of us may be eating our phones.


Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at mbrodeur@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.