There’s been a lot of misinformation about the FBI’s battle to force Apple to weaken its digital security. Here are the top four myths about the case, followed by the top four reasons we’ve got to support Apple.
The top four myths about FBI v. Apple
- This case is about Apple’s refusal to comply with a lawful search warrant. In fact, Apple has already complied with search warrants in the San Bernardino investigation. The company gave the FBI all the information it possessed about that particular phone and the account connected to it, including multiple iCloud backups. The FBI isn’t asking Apple to comply with a traditional search warrant; instead, it’s asking a court to force Apple to write new software code, sign that code as if it’s a legitimate software update, and deliver it to the iPhone in question, so that investigators can look inside the phone. That’s totally unprecedented in US history, incredibly dangerous, and nothing at all like complying with a search warrant that requires a company or person to hand over information or records in their possession.
- Apple must help the government, because otherwise the FBI has no way to access the information on this phone. While Apple’s encryption system is very good, it’s not unbreakable. The NSA could, through a time consuming and expensive process, break into the iPhone and give the FBI all the information it seeks in this case. The reason the FBI isn’t asking the NSA to do that is because it wants to obtain legal precedent to force companies to do that hacking for the government. It’s expensive and time consuming to break into encrypted devices like the iPhone, which means the government can only do so in the most extreme cases. That economic check on unaccountable government surveillance is necessary—both to protect our rights in a free society, and to protect the security tools that we all rely on every day to keep our most sensitive information safe from stalker ex-boyfriends, criminal hackers, foreign governments, and industrial spies.
- This case is just about one phone. Nothing could be further from the truth. Prosecutors and police across the country have said they are watching this case closely, because they know that if the FBI wins, they too will likely gain the power to force technology companies like Apple to hack their products on behalf of the government. The ultimate ruling in this case will establish whether we can trust any digital technologies, from cars to wifi connected medical implants to smart televisions, and everything in between and beyond. If the FBI gets its way, the government could gain the legal right to force technology companies large and small to spy on their users on behalf of the police. That would provoke a crisis of mistrust in the tools and systems billions of people all around the world rely on every day to create, share, and store private information, and it would expose those technologies to gaping security holes that would be exploited by anyone with the technical ability to hack them.
- Law enforcement is “going dark” because encryption is making it hard for investigators to identify suspects and solve crimes. As Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society found in a 2015 report, law enforcement and intelligence agencies today have access to huge quantities of information about hundreds of millions of people, often without warrants. We are truly living in the golden era of surveillance, when it’s easier than ever before for police and spies to find out extremely sensitive information about us. The claim that encryption makes it impossible for investigators to do their jobs is not just overblown—it’s backwards. The truth is that it’s easier than ever before for police and spies to find out where we have been, what we’ve been doing, who we’ve been communicating with, and even where we are going. In fact, even in the San Bernardino case, a local police officer told reporters there’s a “reasonable chance” that there’s nothing of value on the iPhone in question. Meanwhile, investigators have been able to obtain lots of information from other service providers about the suspect’s movements and activities prior to the attacks.
The top four reasons to support Apple in this fight
- Security and privacy are not opposites. When it comes to digital technologies, they are one in the same. The FBI wants you to believe that strong digital security tools like end-to-end and disk encryption threaten your safety. But nothing could be further from the truth. Strong security tools like encryption don’t just protect your most sensitive information from theft and abuse; they also protect your physical safety. Think about it this way: If someone stole your unencrypted smartphone and gained access to all of your photos, emails, text messages, map history, and apps, they could use that information to determine where your children go to school, who picks them up and at what time, and what they look like. Identity thieves could steal your banking information or use personal data they obtained from the phone to impersonate you, and easily gain access to your most sensitive accounts. Digital security doesn’t just protect our information; it also protects our physical bodies, our families, our finances, and our communities.
- Targeted communities—Black people, undocumented immigrants, dissidents, and Muslims—will suffer the most serious fallout if the FBI wins this case. If the police get the power to force technology companies to hack their users, they will undoubtedly use those powers to threaten the security of oppressed people and communities. Lots of commentators warn, rightly, that if the FBI wins this case, dissidents in autocratic countries will face weakened security and harsher attacks from their authoritarian officials. But we do not live in a perfect society in the United States, and all is not equal here. From the war on drugs to the war on dissent to the war on immigrants, law enforcement agencies and groups like the FBI will, if history is any lesson, use these expanded hacking powers to document, track, monitor, harass, and even incarcerate oppressed people and dissidents. At a time when the nation is crying out for solutions to our grotesque mass incarceration problem, and to the crisis we’re facing with respect to millions of undocumented people seeking legal status, we shouldn’t make it any easier for discriminatory, harsh policies of mass lockups and deportations to continue. In other words, we have problems with anti-democratic policies and procedures, too; it’s not just Chinese dissidents we need to worry about.
- We are establishing the legal norms for the next century of digital life, so it’s absolutely critical that we get this right. The precedent established in this case will impact future generations, and the security of technologies we haven’t even invented yet. We want to make sure that we are thinking critically, and not acting from fear, as we establish the rules that will govern the future of digital security. Winning this fight now will help to secure not just the technologies we use today, but also those our children and grandchildren will use in the coming decades.
- The inevitable crisis of mistrust caused by a ruling in favor of the FBI would devastate the US technology industry, the world’s most vibrant. Over two million Americans hold jobs in the high-tech industry. American corporations like Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft dominate across the globe. But if the government secures the legal right to force these corporations to hack their own users, people in the United States and beyond will stop trusting those products, and look elsewhere, to companies based in countries that cannot be forced to comply with American legal precedent. That would have a catastrophic impact not only on the technology industry here, but also on the US economy. In Massachusetts, which boasts the highest tech workforce per capita in the United States, the economic impact would be especially crippling.