The federal government’s dispute with Apple over unlocking the smartphone used by a dead terrorist in the San Bernardino, Calif., attacks apparently hangs on how the courts interpret the All Writs Act, written in 1789 but still used today to extract data from tech companies.
As this crucial test of national security vs. corporate and personal privacy unfolds, perhaps we should all be more concerned about how things might play out in the digitally connected America of 2089 or 2019, for that matter.
The facts of the case are well-known. The FBI has asked Apple to help unlock a phone once carried by Syed Rizwan Farook, who along with his wife carried out the December attacks in San Bernardino that left 14 dead and 22 wounded. The phone was issued to Farook by his employer, San Bernardino County, which isn’t opposed to having it opened.
Read the full commentary in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel here.
Until September 2014, when Apple introduced its iOS 8 operating system, it used a “master key” to unlock phones to comply with court orders in certain criminal cases touched by the All Writs Act. Since then, it has been unwilling to perform data extractions — and its phones wipe out data after 10 failed tries to crack the code.
Apple’s stand is not based on the company’s sanctioning of terrorism, but being compelled to create a “back door” to its devices against its will — an outcome it fears will put customer data at risk of snooping by law enforcement and government agencies, not only in the United States, but in nations such as China and Russia that have fewer qualms about doing so.
Most major tech companies have rallied to Apple’s defense, and many have filed amicus briefs in the complicated legal fight. There’s an emerging sense that the outcome of the Apple case will set the tone for years and decades to come, and perhaps open the door to a world in which there is no such thing as truly private conversations or information.
From a commerce point of view, that’s especially worrisome as the Internet of Things — devices communicating with other devices — takes hold.
Tech companies that have assured customers their devices cannot be penetrated by governments or others will see their credibility undermined. That’s crucial in an era when connected cars, homes, kitchens and even refrigerators are being touted as the next wave of innovation, yet all of those platforms come with cameras or sensors that can capture personal data.
The Internet of Things should aspire to be the Internet of Secured Things, not the Internet of Surveillance Things.
Of course, society has brought some of this upon itself. Anyone who carries a smartphone that backs up data to an Internet “cloud” is likely participating in the collection of data that can be used for many purposes, from marketing soap to public health assessments to monitoring traffic flow. It’s also potentially accessible to hackers, at home or abroad, and even official snooping under some circumstances.
The advent of the digital age has made some Americans, particularly those of the millennial generation, a bit numb to the concept of privacy. They recognize that life in a future connected world means they will likely see an erosion of privacy, even subtly so, due to technologies that are otherwise viewed as helpful or fun.
As one university student told me the other day, “Every time I use my smartphone, I assume I am telling someone something about me.”
Companies themselves are partly to blame, too. Encryption wasn’t talked about much at the dawn of the Internet, and the rise of mobile technologies and hackers has only recently forced companies to become more diligent, as Apple has done of late with its hardened security.
And yet, those same companies don’t want to become unwilling conscripts for potential government surveillance as they invite customers to use their products in their homes, cars, kitchens and bedrooms.
Technology is making the world and society more prone to surveillance. Perhaps society itself invited that outcome, but it shouldn’t mean compelling companies to open back doors to make snooping even easier.