Privacy SOS

Privacy and security are not opposites. Just ask the NYPD.

The FBI and the Obama Justice Department want courts to force Apple to act as a government spy by writing new code to break iPhone security features. FBI director Jim Comey claims he is singularly concerned with getting access to information on the government-owned work phone of the San Bernardino shooter. There’s nothing political about this case, Comey insists.

In order to believe the FBI director, we’d have to ignore two obvious facts.

First, the San Bernardino shooter had multiple phones, some personal and one issued by the local government he worked for. After his attacks, he physically destroyed his personal phones and left the government iPhone untouched. Jim Comey wants us to believe there’s crucial evidence on the government-issued phone—the phone that was subject to employer monitoring, and which the shooter didn’t bother to destroy after his attacks. That’s awfully hard to believe. And even if you do believe it, it’s hard to imagine what useful information might be on that phone that investigators don’t already have access to. After all, investigators can easily demand call records, text message records, internet browsing records, and Facebook communications from other service providers. Undoubtedly, the FBI already has all of that information. What’s so important on the work phone (the phone the killer didn’t bother to destroy)? Probably nothing. 

Second, to take Comey at his word when he says the FBI doesn’t have any motive in this case other than getting access to the contents on this one phone, you’d have to believe that the lawyers at FBI and DOJ don’t understand how legal precedent works, and that the bureau has given up on its years-long political ambition of establishing legal authorization to force technology companies to install government backdoors into their systems. 

That’s a lot of hard-to-believe. But there’s more.

The FBI ultimately wants to convince us that this case is about security versus privacy, and more broadly, that technologies that enhance our digital security threaten our physical safety. But as pretty much all technology experts will attest, that’s not remotely true. This case—like the larger debate about whether to install government backdoors in secure systems—is about security versus surveillance, security versus freedom, and security versus unlimited government power. 

Despite the FBI director’s disingenuous claims, uncrackable encryption technologies don’t endanger us; they keep us safe. And although it would make sense to trust technology experts about this, you don’t have to trust them alone. You can also ask the NYPD.

Back in 2013, when Apple first announced its iOS 7 software would default encrypt all iPhones secured with passwords, NYPD officers handed out flyers at subway stops advising passengers to immediately upgrade to the new software. Why? The NYPD assumed that if every iPhone in New York was encrypted, there would be fewer iPhone thefts. That’s because if someone stole your encrypted iPhone, they’d never be able to get sensitive data off of it—data that they could sell to identity thieves or use to blackmail people. In fact, the thieves may not be able to ever use the device again, making the theft totally useless. A stolen iPhone that’s unhackable and unusable is a lot less valuable than an easily hackable phone. The NYPD apparently knew this, and assumed that widespread use of encryption technologies would cut down on iPhone theft. It’s a totally sensible assumption.

The same line of thinking about security technology extends to every area of our lives, where they intersect with digital devices. That’s why, in the battle over encryption technologies, civil libertarians have an unlikely ally in the form of former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden. 

On the questions of encryption and the government’s demand on Apple, Hayden told the Wall Street Journal, “I think Jim Comey’s wrong.” 

“America is simply more secure with unbreakable end-to-end encryption,” Hayden said

Amen. Security tools provide us with just that: security. Don’t let the government use this horrific terrorist attack to frighten you into giving up not just your privacy, but also your security. There’s far too much at stake. 

© 2023 ACLU of Massachusetts.