An incredible act of corporate defiance was announced by Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, yesterday.
“The United States government has demanded that Apple take an unprecedented step which threatens the security of our customers. We oppose this order, which has implications far beyond the legal case at hand…
“We are challenging the FBI’s demands with the deepest respect for American democracy and a love of our country. We believe it would be in the best interest of everyone to step back and consider the implications.
“It would be wrong for the government to force us to build a backdoor into our products. And ultimately, we fear that this demand would undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect.”
– Tim Cook, A Message to Our Customers, February 16th 2016, www.apple.com/customer-letter
The US government is seeking a backdoor to access Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS, which would enable law enforcement to brute-force their way into iPhones, and access the personal data within.
The request centres around an iPhone 5C which previously belonged to deceased terrorists Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik – who murdered 14 people and seriously injured 22 others at a party in San Bernardino, California, in December last year.
In refusing to comply, the company has seemingly launched a head-on charge against the incessant march of anti-digital privacy measures, through which governments and the intelligence services wish to obtain Total Information Awareness.
San Francisco-based digital rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation has voiced its support for the decision. Wired said Cook had “laid out the pro-encryption case in a way that’s accessible, tangible, and immediate.”
But the letter raises more questions than it answers.
- Has the Internet Dragnet failed, not only to prevent yet another terrorist attack, but even in the follow-up investigations after the event?
- Does this incident mean that the capabilities of the NSA and CIA are not available to the FBI in an investigation following a terrorist attack on American soil?
- Is this particular investigation seeking locally-stored information (such as through a note-taking app) that could not be gleaned through the Internet Dragnet?
It is the FBI, we are told, who are being denied access to the iPhone.
Cook does not mention the NSA or GCHQ, nor any of their myriad surveillance programs, which target Apple directly. The monitoring of undersea fibre optic cables persists. PRISM (the collection of data directly from servers belonging to Apple, Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, Paypal, and others by the intelligence services in the US, UK and its ally spy agencies), and all other tendrils of the Five Eyes surveillance state apparatus, persists.
Mr Cook has previously criticised both the widely-derided UK surveillance bill and slammed Obama administration officials over privacy, insisting that no backdoors should be built in to tech products.
And yet for Apple’s customers and people around the country, to whom this latest message is addressed, who may even have a decent awareness of the dizzyingly complex issues at hand, it would appear that the iPhone as a product is impenetrable.
But that’s not true, according to some tech security experts; the nature of the iPhone 5C hardware in question makes it easier to crack, thanks to the absence of a Secure Enclave chip.
Like any good CEO, Cook’s foremost agenda is winning the public relations battle.
But if we cast our minds back to 2013, when Edward Snowden plundered the massive dossier of NSA intelligence information and went on the run, leading to revelations about the organisation’s massive Internet Dragnet spying operation in leaked Powerpoint slides, it was shown that Apple even has its own ‘PRISM provider’ case designation – “PA”. Microsoft and Yahoo services are “P1” and “P2”, respectively.
The content available to spooks is listed as “stored comms (search), instant messaging, RTN-EDC (real-time notification of an email event such as a login on sent message), RTN-IM (real-time notification of a chat login or logout event), email, VoIP, Full (WebForum), OSN Messaging (photos, wallposts, activity, etc.), OSN Basic Subscriber Info, and videos.”
Clearly, if these slides are to be believed, the iPhones of all Apple customers, regardless of this investigation by the FBI, do not exist in an off-limits oasis, above and beyond the reach of the state or law enforcement.
Regardless, this latest letter shows us a CEO in Tim Cook who is actively engaged in civil rights issues. As well as his passion for privacy issues, in hiring new employees, the company is increasingly committed to diversity. In terms of supplier responsibility, Apple is carrying out more audits of suppliers than ever.
One might view Mr Cook as a sort of white, multi-millionaire, American Gandhi, acting, for however long, as a focal point for peaceful resistance by the digital serfdom.
Consider the parallels:
– Mahatma Gandhi, born in Porbandar, British India, 1869
After a career as a barrister and civil rights activist, led British-ruled India to independence through peaceful protest and pursued spiritual enlightenment
– Tim Cook, born in Mobile, Alabama, United States, 1960
After stints at IBM and Compaq, rose at Apple from SVP for worldwide operations, to COO, and finally, CEO, in 2011. Set to lead internet users to freedom from surveillance tyranny?
Actually, nah, let’s not go there.
But we shouldn’t diminish what has been the most extreme possible test of Apple’s position on privacy – even actual, dead terrorists, who murdered 14 people and injured 22 others, are being respected.
We live in a world in which our entire digital footprint – every Google search, every Amazon purchase, every Facebook status, every Oyster card usage, every loyalty card scanning, and so on – can be acquired and stored, pinned to our real life selves, and ripped open to offer a rich tapestry of personal data.
Perhaps there should be a terrorism equivalent to Godwin’s Law – let’s call it ‘TechBash’s Law’ – that surveillance state apparatus will always, eventually, invoke the threat of terrorism to get deeper and broader access to the personal data of populations.
Whether they get what they want is down to men like Mr Cook.
“I heartily accept the motto, “That government is best which governs least”; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe- “That government is best which governs not at all”; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have”
– Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience, 1849