In class this week, we explored the trade-off that sometimes is necessary between individual privacy and national security. Nowhere else was this better shown than the case between Apple and the FBI about unlocking the phone of a San Bernardino shooter, and the debate that we had in class about Apple and the FBI afterward. The FBI had obtained an iPhone from the site of the shooting, but could not unlock the iPhone so tried to compel Apple to weaken the passcode features on the iPhone through the All Writs Act of 1789. Specifically, the FBI wanted Apple to remove the limit on number of attempts and the delay after incorrect attempts, while adding the ability to use software to input the passcode attempts instead of by hand. Apple refused, implying that creating an iPhone with these alterations was dangerous, and a slippery slope towards mass surveillance by the government.
Going into the class, I was one of the many students who marked Apple as the correct party in the debate, as I held that personal privacy is an essential right that cannot be infringed upon. But, I think I was slightly misinformed when I came into the room. I had conflated the government’s desire to install a backdoor for their use only in communication software (like Attorney General Barr was speaking about) with their goal to unlock this specific iPhone. I still believe that a government backdoor in communication software is wrong, spying on citizens and creating vulnerabilities that everyone, not just the government, will exploit. Especially since mass surveillance of citizens has been shown to be ineffective at preventing crime. But in the specific case of the Bernardino shooter, where one of several shooters in a mass shooting had a locked phone that could hold information that would help prevent future attacks, and the “backdoor” requested for one single physical phone after they had obtained a warrant, I believe that the FBI is actually correct. I did not realize that the nature of their request was for one single phone, not the actual software. For Apple to fear monger by claiming this software they made would somehow be released into the wider world to break into your phone is ludicrous, since they simply could have unlocked the one single phone using the already existing genius bar technology and then handing it to the FBI, without any exchange of company software.
In any case, this was one specific case that involves investigation of a a physical phone, as opposed to a larger more general government desire for information in cyberspace. While in Russia or China companies cooperate with the government and hand over the personal information and communications of their customers, the USA is “sitting in the dark”, comparatively. End-to-End encryption makes it so only the sender and recipient can see a message, allowing for total privacy. Which sounds great, until you realize it is also utilized by human trafficking organizations and terrorist organizations to avoid detection by law enforcement. I do not know how to navigate this specific issue, to be honest. I will not cede my right to privacy, so I cannot stand for the government intentionally creating backdoors in computer security, but I also cannot just ignore the problems that arise from total privacy. Perhaps one day there might actually exist some “reasonable security”, but in the current world any attempt to create that is really just creating vulnerabilities.