Apple vs. the FBI: A Game of Tug of War

Privacy vs. Security:  

The rights of the individual versus the needs of the collective

This old conflict is playing out on a new stage in the debate between Apple and the FBI over the San Bernardino terrorist Syed Rizwan Farook’s locked iPhone. The FBI is demanding Apple’s assistance in breaking through their encryption in order to analyze the phone’s contents, while Apple is refusing to create a “backdoor” into their software, which they fear could lead to exploitation and abuse of power by evildoers.

Butchko recognizes the dilemma posed by the FBI v. Apple case and acknowledge valid points on both sides. The roots of the debate can be traced back to the investigation into the 9/11 attacks, when U.S. and allied intelligence services were desperate for phone data records that could help “connect the dots” between Al Qaida facilitators, operatives, and cells that had gone underground and were operating covertly outside of Afghanistan. The outrage felt at the time, the fear generated in the absence of insight into these networks, and the difficulty engaging more traditional collection mechanisms (such as HUMINT) all combined to create a strong imperative to leverage technology… technology that brought us to the water’s edge of privacy rights guaranteed to every U.S. citizen.  But ultimately, given the circumstances, security was the winner.  But would this be the right move today?

First there is Apple’s side of the argument. An iconic, multibillion dollar, global company that is the kingmaker for its industry. Apple’s reputation and brand as a corporate asset probably rivals the technology it manufactures and sells worldwide. Apple argues that the essential value of its brand is that its phones and the data stored on them are completely secure. They argue that if the federal government forces Apple to write code that will break the phone’s encryption, it is compelling the company to abandon its responsibility to secure customer data in the U.S. and internationally.

On the other hand, there is the U.S. Government’s insistence that the encryption needs to be broken to get at what “might be” on the phone. First, what breakdown in our intelligence collection methods led to the plotting, and execution by the San Bernardino attackers in the first place? In hindsight, we can point to several problem areas which should have been addressed. Without casting blame, our current administration has under-resourced law enforcement and intelligence collection for some time now, instead placing their assurance in technology and drones. Every drone strike obliterates a potential source of intelligence. And, in terms of technology…well, it appears the Pandora’s box that was opened in the 1990’s allowing strong encryption in the market place, has come back to bite us.

There are flaws that can be picked at on both sides of this argument. Apple’s “defense” of the privacy of its clientele through the discretion afforded by encryption rings a bit hollow, since its products are manufactured and assembled in the People’s Republic of China. It would be naïve to assume that these are “secure” assembly lines that are never exploited by Chinese intelligence services. So it comes down to who you trust more: your government, the FBI and its assurance of discretion, or the integrity of a product that comes off Chinese assembly lines. You choose.

A recent article in highlights the collateral issues related to the case, and not just the simplistic government versus international business entity clash. With over 1.3 million lawyers and an unknown number of regulators in the U.S. to interpret and adjudicate disparate statues, critical areas within the US economy and critical infrastructure can be significantly impacted. This collateral damage is not something that is easy, and certainly not practical, to fully understand in the context of one court case.  Meanwhile, the tug of war wages on and the public stands to get dragged into the mud.