Apple can sell consumers cellphones that are safe from hackers. Or it can sell phones that the FBI can break into in times of emergency. But not both. Unfortunately, many people in public-policy — including major candidates for president — are acting as if there’s no tough choice to be made.
On Tuesday, a federal judge in California ordered Apple to come up with a way to defeat a key iPhone security feature. The FBI wants to get into an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino terrorism suspects. In recent years, though, Apple has sought to minimize its own ability to break into its products. CEO Tim Cook said in a statement late Tuesday night that Apple would fight the order.
Cook’s seemingly absolutist position makes practical sense. The same encryption that frustrates investigators in the San Bernardino case also protects Chinese human-rights advocates — not to mention the contents of the devices carried by American government officials and tech executives — from intrusions by, for instance, hackers in Beijing. As Bruce Schneier, a security technologist affiliated with Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, noted in an email this morning, “I cannot build a technology that only operates in the presence of people with a certain morality.”
Yet to the FBI officials, federal judges, and presidential candidates who want Apple to help the government, Cook sounds like that touchy IT guy who passive-aggressively insists that something can’t or shouldn’t be done when, in fact, he just doesn’t feel like doing it. “Who do they think they are?” GOP front-runner Donald Trump said Wednesday when asked on Fox News about Apple’s stance.
Trump, at least, is being forthright in taking the government’s side. Other candidates, in both parties, have raised hopes of a compromise that, in the real world, would likely prove impossible. Hillary Clinton has expressed discomfort with making tech companies build so-called back doors into their products but has also called for a “Manhattan-like project” to decrypt terrorists’ communications. Jeb Bush maintains that government needs the ability to get into phones and should just keep asking tech firms for access.
Silicon Valley thinks in 1s and 0s. Indeed, the entire technology industry is built upon zillions of individual on-or-off, yes-or-no decisions. In politics, alas, it’s easier to defer stark choices or deny their existence entirely — and pretend that American ingenuity can do anything, including create encryption that is both breakable and unbreakable at the same time.