Thursday 24 March 2016

All Quiet on the Apple Front—But Not for Long

Apple, FBI, iPhone, encryption, SumRando Cybersecurity, VPN, Secure Messenger, United States
March 22nd was expected to be a day of reckoning in the ongoing Apple-FBI battle but instead turned into the calm before an impending storm.

Tuesday’s scheduled hearing was canceled because the FBI may have found a way to unlock the iPhone of San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook without the help of Apple, a situation that would render the iPhone supplier’s help as well as the hearing unnecessary.

At this point, little more than the fact that the FBI has until April 5 to provide a status update is known. In the meantime, theories attempting to explain such a last minute change of course abound—and range from believing the FBI has indeed found a way in to suggesting the government is merely attempting to buy time because it knows it doesn’t.

What’s clear is that this fight is far from over.

Prior to the hearing’s cancelation, Monday’s Apple spring product release provided yet another opportunity for CEO Tim Cook to reinforce the company’s stance: “I’ve been humbled and deeply grateful for the outpouring of support we’ve received from Americans across the country from all walks of life. We didn’t expect to be in this position at odds with our own government, but we believe strongly that we have a responsibility to help you protect your data and to protect your privacy. We owe it to our customers and we owe it to our country. This is an issue that impacts all of us and we will not shrink from this responsibility.”

The support for Apple has been widespread, and includes that of Google CEO Sundar Pichai, Whatsapp CEO Jan Koum, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression David Kaye, Silent Circle co-founder Phil Zimmermann, husband of San Bernardino shooting victim Salihin Kondoker and, as Cook mentioned, numerous protesters across the country.

The question that remains is whether such support will be enough. If the government is unable to unlock the iPhone, the hearing will simply continue as intended, but if it is successful in unlocking the phone, the United States government will have yet another tool to surveil its citizens and noncitizens alike—and a tool that Apple itself might not fully understand.

Even President Obama has recently come under attack for warning against an “absolutist” position regarding encryption: “If your argument is 'strong encryption no matter what, and we can and should in fact create black boxes,' that I think does not strike the kind of balance we have lived with for 200, 300 years,” despite also acknowledging that the personal information found on smartphones has a right to be protected. Given the current trajectory of the United States presidential campaign, there’s little hope Obama’s successor will offer much more support: Ted Cruz wanted to see Apple comply with the government’s request, Donald Trump went so far as to suggest a consumer boycott of the company in the interim, Bernie Sanders called for “middle ground” and Hillary Clinton reduced the standoff to the “worst dilemma ever.”

The prospect of a long-term change in government philosophy also looks bleak. A vaguely-worded anti-encryption bill, proposed by Senators Richard Burr and Dianne Feinstein, is currently circulating the United States Senate. Although in no immediate danger of being signed into law, the bill would codify the notion that federal court judges have a right to force companies into circumventing encryption on the government’s behalf.

At a time like this, it is imperative that the United States look beyond itself for answers. Beyond Apple and beyond the FBI is an international community reminding us that encryption remains a basic human right. On Monday, Amnesty International released Encryption: A Matter of Human Rights in a timely reminder of why such technology must be protected for all.

Accompanying the report, Amnesty International Deputy Director for Global Issues Sherif Elsayed-Ali acknowledged, “The Apple case shows what is at stake in the encryption debate. It is not just about one phone, but whether governments should be able to dictate the security of software that protects the privacy of millions of people. Opening a ‘backdoor’ in security for governments risks opening the door to both cyber criminals who want to hack your phone and governments around the world who want to spy on and repress critics. If the US authorities force one of the world’s biggest tech companies to make its products less secure, the danger is that governments around the world will follow suit and demand similarly intrusive powers from the hundreds of smaller companies developing privacy technology.”

If it's frightening to imagine the United States government forcing Apple to cooperate, just imagine how much worse off we would all be if the government doesn’t even need Apple’s help.

SumRando Cybersecurity is a Mauritius-based VPN, Web Proxy and Secure Messenger provider. Surf secure and stay Rando!

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