Let’s say you owned and operated a company that made locks. Locks for cars, houses, padlocks, etcetera. Your company sold more locks than most others and were popular. All sorts of people used them to secure their property and valuables. The thing is some bad people used them too – they would lock up things they stole from others – using your locks. Now let’s say the police want to open a container because they say it was owned by bad person and they need to get inside it, but it is secured by one of your locks. They ask you for a master key. You tell them truthfully that no master key exists, and that not having a master key is one reason so many people like your locks as it makes them more secure. The police then get a court to order you to invent a master key so that they can open the lock.
That’s what happened this week with the FBI and Apple Computer, with a court ordering Apple to invent a way for the FBI to break into an iphone used by terror suspect. The FBI is trying to look into the phone used by Syed Farook, who along with his wife, Tashfeen Malik, presumably killed 14 and people and wounded 22 others in the December terrorist attack in San Bernardino. The phone belonged to to Farook’s employer, San Bernardino County, and they have consented to the search. The problem is the FBI cannot crack the encryption, and fear continuing to try might trigger an auto-erase function where the phone essentially self destructs its data.
Apple has informed the FBI upon request that no backdoor access code is present, and they do not have a way in to access the data on the device. That’s when the FBI got Federal Magistrate and former Obama Justice Department lawyer Sheri Pym to order Apple to create one. She permitted Apple to present its “reasonable cost” associated with doing so.
Apple says no. And we are better off for it. Apple’s Tim Cook succinctly explained why in his open letter to customers:
The government suggests this tool could only be used once, on one phone. But that’s simply not true. Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices. In the physical world, 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. No reasonable person would find that acceptable.
The government is asking Apple to hack our own users and undermine decades of security advancements that protect our customers — including tens of millions of American citizens — from sophisticated hackers and cybercriminals. The same engineers who built strong encryption into the iPhone to protect our users would, ironically, be ordered to weaken those protections and make our users less safe.
We can find no precedent for an American company being forced to expose its customers to a greater risk of attack. For years, cryptologists and national security experts have been warning against weakening encryption. Doing so would hurt only the well-meaning and law-abiding citizens who rely on companies like Apple to protect their data. Criminals and bad actors will still encrypt, using tools that are readily available to them.
Another aspect of the order that is troubling is the legal justification for it. It rests on something called the All Writs Act. That law is a sort of catchall that allows court orders to enforce judicial actions. While it has been used before to compel telephone companies to cooperate with law enforcement, that was decades before smartphones were even contemplated, much less a part of our daily lives. The use of this thin justification shows the contempt and scorn with with the Obama justice department shows our privacy rights. Kudos to Apple for resisting.
Why doesn’t the government just do it themselves? Why don’t we have some great minds in the federal service who can do what Apple has been ordered to? Cybersecurity pioneer John McAfee answers that question, “[b]ecause the FBI will not hire anyone with a 24-inch purple mohawk, 10-gauge ear piercings, and a tattooed face who demands to smoke weed while working and won’t work for less than a half-million dollars a year.” Perhaps they should, and then they wouldn’t have to strong arm one of America’s most celebrated companies to slit their own throats, compromising the privacy of millions of Americans.