Apple has been the talk of the tech world since publishing an open letter to its customers on Tuesday explaining that it would not comply with a court order to unlock the personal iPhone of Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the shooters in the San Bernardino attack. “The FBI wants us to make a new version of the iPhone operating system, circumventing several important security features, and install it on an iPhone recovered during the investigation,” wrote Apple CEO Tim Cook. “In the wrong hands, this software—which does not exist today—would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession.” Since then, the company has been taking flak from politicians on the left and right, many of whom have lambasted Apple under the guise of patriotism and national security. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has been the most vocal, asking, “Who do they think they are? They have to open it up.”
As the first generation to grow up on smartphone technology, Millennials store an immense amount of personal data in our phones. Not only do we communicate with them, we also use them to access our bank accounts, create documents for work and personal use, track our health information, and (whether we’re aware of it or not) monitor our location at all times. Much more than an old-school cell phone, PC, or paper files, these devices have become a one-stop shop for a treasure trove of important information about our lives.
Let’s start off by dispelling the main falsehood that the government has tried to propagate in this case: that this would only apply to the specific smartphone of the San Bernardino terrorist.
This is precisely what makes Apple’s announcement something that everyone of our generation must care about. The FBI’s actions against Apple are about much more than just thwarting terrorism; they represent a fundamental threat to our Fourth Amendment rights, which protect us against unreasonable search and seizure of our documents and data. After witnessing the NSA’s rampant violation of our privacy rights, as revealed by Edward Snowden, we should all be—at the very least—highly skeptical of the federal government’s attempt to build a “backdoor” into our smartphones that would bypass the security apparatuses designed to protect our information.
Let’s start off by dispelling the main falsehood that the government has tried to propagate in this case: that this would only apply to the specific smartphone of the San Bernardino terrorist. According to a recent report from MotherBoard, the court order would “force the company to build a special version of its software that removes protections against anyone guessing your passcode millions of times until it gets it right—what’s technically known as a ‘brute-force’ attack.” While the FBI claims this is a one-time solution to access the encrypted information on Farook’s iPhone, once this tool exists, what’s stopping the feds from using it over and over again to access any iPhone it finds in its possession?
Tim Cook warns of the dangerous potential of this technology in his letter, pointing out that “the government could extend this breach of privacy and demand that Apple build surveillance software to intercept your messages, access your health records or financial data, track your location, or even access your phone’s microphone or camera without your knowledge.” The sad reality is that, despite our Fourth Amendment’s protections, the US government has a long history of using privacy violations to suppress unpopular political activism.
One needs to look no further than the FBI’s infamous wiretaps of Martin Luther King Jr. to see this. Through countless bugs, wiretaps, and recordings justified by the McCarthy-era witch hunt against American Communism, the FBI (which deemed King the "most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country,” in an internal memo) was able to use information about his marital infidelity in an attempt to silence his political work. While FBI agents in the 1960s had limited surveillance tools based on the technology available at the time, the reality is that a backdoor to our smartphones could give the government access to far more ammunition against political enemies than it ever had against King.
Once this technology exists, it’s ripe for exploitation by any number of bad actors. While the US government might hold high standards for which iPhones it would hack, the same likely could not be said for oppressive regimes or militant dictatorships across the world where smartphones are also common. Even worse, if it were to leak to the general public, any hacker with bad intentions could use and modify the technology to access troves of personal information on pretty much anyone. This would be a painfully ironic outcome, as the tools they’d use would be built by Apple itself, with the federal government essentially forcing the company to undermine its own security functions.
Unfortunately, very few politicians on either side of the aisle are supporters of encryption and privacy rights as they relate to technology. Trump might have been the loudest voice, but President Barack Obama, along with presidential candidates like Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio, and others have all spoken in favor of the NSA programs revealed by Edward Snowden, and have even pushed legislation for further cooperation between Silicon Valley and the federal government’s surveillance state.
One of the only major voices of dissent has been Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who railed against smartphone surveillance during his short-lived presidential campaign, repeatedly stating, “I believe what you do on your cell phone is none of [the government’s] damn business.” He’s been backed up by other libertarian-leaning Republicans like Michigan Congressman Justin Amash, as well as anti-establishment Democrats like Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, and—to a lesser extent—Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. However, these represent only a small fraction of the politicians in Washington, many of whom are more than happy to voice support for a wide-reaching government surveillance program in a supposed effort to combat terrorism.
Apple is certainly not an innocent company. In fact, another Motherboard report pointed out that it has unlocked 70 iPhones in the past for a wide range of issues. However, these all came before the company released its iOS9 update, which added an encryption for all iPhone data that even Apple cannot access. Some have speculated that this fight is more about the company’s reputation than a true stand for privacy rights. Even if this is true, it doesn’t diminish the core message that Apple is pushing: the FBI’s demands in this case could fundamentally undermine Apple’s security, and by extension, everyone’s data privacy.
The famous Benjamin Franklin adage “Those who would would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither” is cited often, but its message resonates most strongly today. Fighting terrorism is important, but the reality is, our already-extensive surveillance state has failed to protect us from any number of domestic terror tragedies, be it the San Bernardino attack, the Oregon militia standoff, or countless school shootings. We do not need to give our government more ways to access our personal data, and we definitely don’t need to force companies like Apple to undermine their own security technology in a way that could be exploited by oppressive governments or common hackers. As the technology generation, we should care about our Fourth Amendment rights, and we should be leading the charge in supporting the companies and politicians trying to keep our personal information safe. Anything less could put us all at risk.