On January 22, 1984, during the third quarter of Super Bowl XVIII, Apple ran what went on to become one of the most famous–and foresighted–advertisements in history. It featured an unnamed heroine running through a dystopic, industrial scene with lines of people marching in unison, monitored by a Big Brother-like figure discussing the power of conformity. The runner races towards a screen and hurls a hammer at it, shattering it into a thousand pieces just as the man was declaring, “We shall prevail.” As the shock of the even washes over the faces of the gathered masses a portentous voiceover says: “…You’ll see why 1984 won’t be like “1984.””
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This week, Apple CEO Tim Cook did not have the luxury of a Orwellian metaphor, nor the benefit of a Super Bowl-esque megaphone. In their place, Cook penned a simple letter to his customers, and in so doing made clear that Apple was still fighting the battle against Big Brother.
The letter was Cook’s response to a California judge’s order to unlock an iPhone belonging to Syed Farook, one of the terrorists responsible for killing 14 people in San Bernardino. Specifically, the judge ordered Apple to assist the FBI in cracking the encryption code by making it possible to bypass the auto-erase function that deletes a phone’s contents after too many failed password attempts. This would allow the FBI to “brute force” the password, i.e. try every possible combination of numbers until it unlocks.
Although that seems to be a tough sell given the facts at hand (nobody wants to be in the position of even appearing to side with terrorists), the implications of creating a “back door” to bypass an individual’s security are enormous and far-reaching.
“In today’s digital world, the “key” to an encrypted system is a piece of information that unlocks the data, and it is only as secure as the protections around it,” writes Cook. “Once the information is known, or a way to bypass the code is revealed, the encryption can be defeated by anyone with that knowledge.”
“Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices. In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks – from restaurants and banks to stores and homes,” he continues.
That actually may be less a metaphor than it is an accurate description of reality. As the Internet of Things blooms around us, giving the government a developer’s cryptographic key is akin to granting them the ability to build a network of surveillance devices. They could know your lifestyle habits through your Fitbit, your location through your iPhone, your financial data through your online banking system, your comings and goings through your Nest, or even your conversations through your computer’s microphone.
Not too long ago this would have sounded like 1984-style fiction. But with the revelations about the NSA’s programs to access the private communications of ordinary citizens, it’s impossible to not feel skeptical about the government’s surveillance efforts.
So while a dead terrorism suspect doesn’t (and shouldn’t) engender any sympathy, it’s hard to envision a world in which the government’s justifications for snooping won’t be defined downward. And even if the government’s intentions are pure, it’s impossible to build a backdoor that only works for good guys or good governments. As Bruce Schneier writes for the Washington Post:
Either everyone gets security or no one does. Either everyone gets access or no one does. The current case is about a single iPhone 5c, but the precedent it sets will apply to all smartphones, computers, cars and everything the Internet of Things promises. The danger is that the court’s demands will pave the way to the FBI forcing Apple and others to reduce the security levels of their smart phones and computers, as well as the security of cars, medical devices, homes, and everything else that will soon be computerized. The FBI may be targeting the iPhone of the San Bernardino shooter, but its actions imperil us all.
In many ways Apple has created the technology capable of powering Big Brother. But like the heroine from the 1984 commercial, they’ve also displayed a willingness to take a hammer to it.