[Marxism] Apple is right. Our smartphones must be kept secure
lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Feb 28 06:57:44 MST 2016
FT, February 26, 2016 5:16 pm
Apple is right. Our smartphones must be kept secure
by Evgeny Morozov
To watch the confrontation between the US’s most valuable company and
its top law enforcement agency is to find oneself in a state of nearly
permanent cognitive dissonance.
Apparently, America’s government agencies are both omnipotent and
helpless. Omnipotent because, as this week’s batch of surveillance
revelations from WikiLeaks suggests, they have no problems intercepting
highly secretive communications between their European allies. Helpless
because, as the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s bosses keep repeating,
they need Apple’s co-operation in order to break into the iPhone of the
shooter in the San Bernardino attacks.
It gets worse. On February 9, James Clapper, the director of national
intelligence, boasted in his Senate testimony that “in the future,
intelligence services might use the [internet of things] for
identification, surveillance, monitoring, location tracking, and
targeting for recruitment, or to gain access to networks or user
credentials.” Now we learn that such agencies cannot get into our
smartphones . . . let alone our smart fridges.
Something in the government’s rhetoric does not add up. The FBI either
has solid reasons to break into that phone — in which case it is not
obvious why the mighty power of the National Security Agency and other
government bodies has not yet been mobilised — or it is simply using the
San Bernardino case as an excuse to redefine its relationship with
Asked by a judge about its willingness to enlist the help of all the
federal agencies in a similar case from 2015, the government responded
that “federal prosecutors don’t have an obligation to consult the
intelligence community in order to investigate crime.”
And since very little is known about the true capabilities of America’s
intelligence community, everyone involved in the current debate has to
pretend that the world’s most powerful spying agency does not exist.
While the FBI’s defence has been that their request is extremely narrow
— once Apple has facilitated access to that single phone, it is free to
destroy the code required to do so — the broader political context in
which this battle unfolds suggests that Apple’s stance will have
First, the FBI’s request comes at a time when the US government is
exerting immense pressure on America’s largest technology companies to
join it in the fight against Isis. Both the state department and the
Department of Defense have recently expanded their presence in Silicon
While many such requests are straightforward — removing jihadist
propaganda from YouTube or Twitter, for example — there are concerns
that such pressure might extend to modifying their algorithms in order
to hide certain types of content from easily susceptible users.
Google knows what is in your inbox; why should it not modify your search
results to make you less of a terrorist?
Second, it is hard to believe that the San Bernardino case will be an
isolated episode. Not only are there several similar cases already
pending in US courts but many prosecutors have already indicated they
have their own backlog of phones to unlock.
Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance said recently that he would
“absolutely ... want access to all those phones that are crucial in a
Even if Apple chose to destroy the code it writes to help the FBI on
this occasion, it would need to rewrite it for a new request. Should it
keep this code forever, it would be holding on to a magic key to its
devices — a highly prized asset for any hacker.
Given the publicity of the case, any terrorists would probably stop
using Apple’s products anyway. The only people to suffer would be
ordinary users, stuck with their iPhones and iPads.
Third, the FBI’s rationale in this case would make any other
manufacturer of smart devices — including all those smart fridges and
smart thermostats in your smart home — subject to similar requests.
If Apple can be forced to modify security protocols on its phone, what
stops the FBI from asking the manufacturer of the smart smoke detector
to trigger a fake smoke alarm? Or asking the manufacturer of the smart
car to drive suspects directly to the police station?
All of this would seem neat so long as the government agencies were
competent and nobody else could take advantage of such vulnerabilities.
This is not so. The San Bernardino case — where the FBI had a chance to
break into the phone but blew it by changing the suspect’s Apple
password — suggests that the FBI’s technical competence does not yet
match the NSA’s.
And it would be suicidal to force technology companies to weaken
security at a time when institutions of all sorts are vulnerable to
hackers demanding ransoms — earlier this month, a hospital in California
paid the bitcoin equivalent of $17,000 to hackers who had breached its
Apple’s proposed solution is the right one: America needs a
comprehensive political debate on the issue — one that would bypass
Alas, given how little the current batch of presidential candidates
seems to care, or even understand, these issues, this debate is not
likely to happen.
The writer is the author of ‘To Save Everything, Click Here’
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