As an I.T. consultant, I am asked often for my opinion on the battle between the FBI and Apple over gaining access to data on an iPhone that was used by one of the San Bernardino terrorists. I usually start my response with “Well, it’s complicated…” which is a typical dodge that we analytical people rely upon when there are no good options. We go into a loop known as “analysis paralysis.”
However, there are two sure things that I can tell you: This is NOT just about gaining access to a single phone as the FBI insists. And this is NOT about the inability/unwillingness to create a back-door as Apple has insisted. Rather, this whole blow-up is really a proxy for the larger battle that pits Security versus Privacy. This is a battle that has been brewing for decades during which time the FBI has acted like the Army of the Potomac—an overwhelming force that likes to avoid confrontation.
But now they have decided to go on the offensive in a big way—by confronting Apple, which is America’s most valuable corporation and one of its most admired. And the FBI has further decided that the field of battle will be in American public opinion.
It is not surprising then that this battle has engaged the public with the same ferocity and divisiveness that we see in the current presidential campaign. Internet polls, though probably not trustworthy, show just how deeply emotional this issue is. And the private polls demonstrate the division of opinion, with a Pew Research poll giving a slight edge to the FBI and a Reuters poll giving a slight edge to Apple.
But don’t look to me to solve this debate, nor to provide such great insight that you are able to solve it yourself. I am actually far more interested in the covert agenda of both the FBI and Apple. Why would the FBI make this case so public and risk ridicule? Why would Apple disobey its own government and risk public disdain in the wake of a terrorist attack? There are some really interesting possibilities when you think about it.
Apple’s agenda is first and easiest to uncloak. They claim it is impossible to do what the government wants which is to provide a backdoor. And even if it did manage to create a backdoor, then the bad guys would eventually find it and exploit it. These are pretty lame excuses. Of course Apple could build a secure back door. What they really mean to say is they do not WANT to do it because if they do it for the US government, they will need to do it anywhere they do business—including a place like China which is one of Apple’s biggest marketplaces. Failure to comply with a request from the Chinese government could result in a ban on iPhone sales in that country which would cost Apple a fortune. And as far as protecting the backdoor—well, if Apple is too afraid to protect their backdoor, then I would be concerned about their ability to protect their front door (i.e., their Cloud service) as well.
The FBI’s agenda is far more interesting to speculate upon, especially in light of their decision to cancel a court hearing because a third party has offered to break into the iPhone for them. Who is this 3rd party? And wasn’t it convenient of this 3rd party to make this offer just before the hearing? No longer a battle of Security vs. Privacy, this has become a head game; and the timeout just before the hearing is like icing the field goal kicker right before a last second attempt to win the game. I’ve come up with five possibilities here that run the gamut from overwhelming victory to embarrassing retreat:
- The FBI, hoping for an overwhelming outcry from the American public which never really occurred, is trying to save face from what could be a very public beat-down by the judge in this case. In this scenario, we never really hear an ending to this story…it just disappears.
- The FBI ratchets up the pressure on Apple and makes them a little nervous—and more crucially, their customers nervous—that their iPhone is not as secure as they think. In this scenario, there really is no 3rd party able to crack the iPhone. Just a couple news cycles to make Tim Cook sweat.
- Thanks to the mysterious 3rd party, the FBI gains the upper-hand and no longer needs Apple or American public opinion. In this scenario, however, the FBI risks the ultimate humiliation—all this publicity, and what if they don’t find any useful information at all on the iPhone? This would be reminiscent of Geraldo Rivera breaking into a secret Al Capone hideout on live TV—only to find absolutely nothing. Career kill.
- The 3rd party actually does crack into the iPhone but forever remains anonymous. Why? Because the mysterious third party is…Apple! In this scenario, Apple complies with what the FBI wants. But because Apple’s identity remains a secret, they will not be compelled by other nations such as China to crack into more iPhones.
- The fifth scenario is a doozy. Think for a minute…why would the FBI risk losing in the court of public opinion, or losing in the court of judicial opinion, or losing everything if it finds no useful data on the iPhone? It seems like the FBI has a lot to lose and maybe nothing to gain. But what if in actuality it was the reverse—the FBI had everything to gain and nothing to lose? How could that be? In this scenario, the FBI long ago already cracked the iPhone and gained valuable information off of it. Holding all of the cards, they then decided to go after a much bigger prize—specifically Encryption and symbolically Apple. Still smarting from the Clipper Chip fiasco from the 90’s, the FBI pretends to be desperate to crack the iPhone: they prey on Apple’s patriotism to do the right thing; they whip up anti-encryption sentiment in American public opinion; and all along they already have what they need. It is a no-lose situation for the FBI. When they eventually demonstrate that they have lifted critical information off of the iPhone thanks to a “3rd party”, they will look like heroes to the American public, Apple will be sharply rebuked, and encryption will remain an underachiever.
I am sorry. You read this to the end hoping to get my opinion on whether Apple should have complied with the FBI’s request. But this is not just a simple court case of right versus wrong. Rather, it is a heart-and-soul battle over the internet, and all that it stands for. And like all heart-and-soul battles, such as Labor vs. Capital, Liberal vs. Conservative, it is probably best that both sides remain strong so that a sustained stand-off guarantees no tyrannical winner and no indispensable loser. We need both Security and Privacy, I don’t know how anyone can choose one over the other.
3/31/2016 UPDATE: The FBI just announced that they have successfully accessed the iPhone with the help of a third party. It will be interesting to see if the FBI discloses what they find on the phone. We will also be watching for Apple’s response and whether the FBI will share with Apple how it was able to access the iPhone.