Why the FBI request to Apple is a worry

22 February 2016 5:23 pm

Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. […] still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.”
- Lord Acton

The big news story last week was the the FBI securing a US federal court's order to write special software so federal investigators coud penetrate the passcode for an iPhone once used by Syed Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik. They were the perpetrators of a shooting spree in San Bernardino, California on December 2, which killed 14 people and injured 22 others. The shooters were later killed during a gunfight with police. Agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and lawyers from the Justice Department have said Farook's phone, an iPhone 5C, may contain key evidence about his communications in the weeks before the attack, but they cannot access it without Farook's passcode. This is why they want the software.

This triggered fierce debate last week over whether Apple could comply with the demand. At the same time, privacy advocates reckon engineering such software could have dangerous security implications. And there are constitutional questions about how far the US government can go when conscripting private, third parties to assist with law

The alarming part is that US regulators have a broader strategy to crack smart phones. As Bloomberg reports:

"In a secret meeting convened by the White House around Thanksgiving, senior national security officials ordered agencies across the US government to find ways to counter encryption software and gain access to the most heavily protected user data on the most secure consumer devices, including Apple Inc.’s iPhone, the marquee product of one of America’s most valuable companies, according to two people familiar with the decision.”

And this is where it gets worrying. Of course, regulators say it’s all to do with security. But let’s not forget how the anti-terrorist provisions of the Patriot Act that were used to invade citizens’ privacy in cases that had nothing to do with terrorism.

It's a point Rodney Balko made in the Washington Post two years ago: “Always assume that when a law grants new powers to the government, that law will be interpreted in the vaguest, most expansive, most pro-government manner imaginable”

Now think of the revelations of Edward Snowden of how the US National Security Agency (NSA) was collecting the telephone records of tens of millions of Americans. Most of their conversations had nothing to do with terrorism.

The point is that the terrorist and his equally as radicalised wife didn't actually kill anyone with an Apple phone. They used firearms for these religiously-motivated executions, semi-automatics and other weapons were of a kind sold in stores in cities and towns across America.

And that is the problem, not the technology. The Apple-FBI case is another example of government police state tactics.