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Friday, February 19, 2016

Apple Nitpicking

Apple CEO Tim Cook this week published an open letter in which he condemned a court order requiring Apple to "unlock" an iPhone that belonged to one of the perpetrators of last December's San Bernardino massacre.  Apple claims that requiring the company to create a "back door" to hack into the device represents some unconscionable violation of privacy rights.  And while in general I find it heartening that the tech colossus has such a passionate regard for customer privacy, I'm frankly bewildered by Cook's response.  Am I missing something?

People have a right to privacy.  But privacy, like any other right, has limits.  Police or other government agents may not come into my home and search it--unless they have a warrant expressly allowing them to do so.  Law enforcement agents may tap phones and read text messages, as long as, again, they convince a judge that such intrusions are necessary.  How is this case any different?  A judge has signed an order allowing law enforcement to overrule an individual's right to privacy--and frankly, since the owner of this particular iPhone was killed after his attack, I doubt he's particularly concerned with his right to privacy anymore.  (And on a visceral level, I feel he forfeited that right when he and his wife decided to gun down a dozen innocent people at a Christmas party, but that's kind of beside the point.)

Apple, I think, claims that the request is unreasonable because it is forcing the company to create a mechanism--which doesn't currently exist?--to compromise its own security systems.  They claim that this mechanism could then allow others to hack other iPhones.  Which I guess is a legitimate concern, but does anyone believe that hackers aren't already trying to figure out ways to hack iPhones?  If Apple engineers do create this workaround, will we all really be so much less safe than we are now.

Another objection I've heard is that, if the US government can compel Apple to unlock its technology, then what's to stop other governments from requiring such accommodations.  Well, nothing, I guess.  But, what's your point?  Governments enforce laws.  If Apple operates in a country, it is subject to the laws of that country.  Like any "citizen" (corporations are people, right?), Apple can dislike the laws and can use its considerable financial and political muscle to advocate for changes to those laws--but it can't simply disregard the laws.  And this is true whether we're talking about US law or the laws of other countries.

Finally, some have suggested that Apple simply cannot bypass the encryption standards it has programmed into its devices--that is, that they don't have the technological capacity to do so.  I believe the technical term for this response is "bullshit."  I don't believe for one second that Apple engineers could not figure out a way to unlock an iPhone.  Put it this way: If some evil genius creates a virus designed to target and destroy Apple's internal networks, and if the only way to prevent the release of this virus was to crack open the evil genius's iPhone, I suspect the good men and women at Apple would figure out a way to do so.

I have the same basic concerns as anyone else over the tendency of government agencies to intrude into the lives of private citizens.  But as long as the government is playing by the well-established rules of law, then corporations have no excuse not to play by the same rules.

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