Normally, between Kickstarter updates, I make a note of every interesting article about Snowden, privacy, and surveillance issues I come across. This list is then ruthlessly whittled down to a final select few which make up the In the news section of the update. In a typical two week period I record about ten relevant news stories. This fortnight my list runs to over fifty!

And so we must talk about Apple. And why they don’t want to help the FBI unlock a terrorist’s phone.

If you’ve missed the news, Apple is currently fighting a legal case against the FBI over whether or not they should aid the FBI in unlocking an iPhone which belonged Syed Farook, one of the San Bernardino shooters. The FBI want Apple to write code which makes it easier for them to break the password on the phone.

It sounds simple and reasonable. Why not help?

Apple have two main objections:

  1. The exploit, once created, will be used again either by law enforcement or criminals and so its mere existence is a threat to the privacy and security of all iPhone owners.
  2. The case will set a legal precedent after which companies may be legally compelled to provide mechanisms to weaken their customers’ security and privacy.

Apple fears a future where they’ll have to write versions of iOS to spy on their customers for governments. If the US demands this capability, why not other countries? If the exploit exists, how can we stop Russia using it to break into the phone of a gay activist, or China using it on an iPhone belonging to pro-democracy protesters?

For its part, the FBI says that the case ‘isn’t about trying to set a precedent’ although in typical obfuscatory style it gives the impression of addressing Apple’s points when it doesn’t. In particular it doesn’t refute the fact that a precedent would be set, or that the exploit could be reused in other cases.

It’s hard to tell what will happen at this stage. Apple can afford good lawyers and it’s possible the case could go all the way to the supreme court. The wider context is worth examining though.

Firstly the case can be seen as a major battle in what is being called ‘the second crypto war’. Questions last debated in the ‘90s have resurfaced post-Snowden. Should it be legal to provide encryption which even the government can’t break? Companies such as Apple have been working to improve the security of their products and governments are worried. If end-to-end encryption becomes widespread, the ability of the NSA and GCHQ to mass surveil is reduced.

Secondly, why Apple? Where are Facebook, Google, Microsoft in this fight? Unlike their competitors, Apple has a unique combination of custom hardware/software, a business model not predicated on customer surveillance, and huge resources to challenge the government. It also, in Tim Cook, has a man who respects and understands the need for privacy. As a minority, he knows that keeping a secret, having privacy, is all that keeps many people safe from unjust persecution. It’s not a coincidence that two of the strongest privacy advocates, and the first two people Snowden reached out to, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, are also members of the LGBT community. That’s not to say gay people have a monopoly on this subject (far from it), but It’s certainly easier to value other people’s’ privacy when you would have been jailed a generation ago if not for yours.

I don’t want to let Apple off scot-free. All of their software is closed-source and a great deal of what they say has to be taken on trust. I don’t think that closed-source software is the best way to guarantee privacy and security, but it’s great to see a silicon valley giant take such a big stand on this important issue. It’s just a shame that it’s taken a corporation, rather than elected officials, to stand up for our rights.

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