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- Apple is supposed to disable features of the iPhone automatically deleting all user data stored on the device which are usually in place to prevent device thieves from accessing the data the owners of the device stored on it.
- Apple will also give the FBI some way to send passcodes (guesses of the PIN that was used to lock the phone) to the device. This sounds strange but will make sense later.
- Apple will disable all software features that introduce delays for entering more passcodes. You know the drill: You type the wrong passcode and the device just waits for a few seconds before you can try a new one.
Apple is compelled to write a little piece of software that runs only on the specified iPhone (the text is very clear on that) and that disables the 2 security features explained in 1 and 3. Because the court actually recognizes the dangers of having that kind of software in the wild it explicitly allows Apple to do all of this within its own facilities: the Phone would be sent to an Apple facility, the software loaded to the RAM of the device. This is where 2 comes in: When the device has been modified by loading the Apple-signed software into its RAM the FBI needs a way to send PIN code guesses to the device. The court order even explicitly states that Apple’s new software package is only supposed to go to RAM and not change the device in other ways. Potentially dangerous software would never leave Apple’s premises, Apple also doesn’t have to introduce or weaken the security of all its devices and if Apple can fulfill the tasks described in some other way the court is totally fine with it. The government, any government doesn’t get a generic backdoor to all iPhones or all Apple products. In a more technical article than this on Dan Guido outlines that what the court order asks for would work on the iPhone in question but not on most newer ones.
So while Apple’s PR evokes the threat of big government’s boots marching on to step on everybody’s individual freedoms, the text of the court order and the technical facts make the case ultra specific: Apple isn’t supposed to build a back door for iPhones but help law enforcement to open up one specific phone within their possession connected not to a theoretical crime in the future but the actual murder of 14 people.
We could just attribute it all to Apple effectively taking a PR opportunity to strengthen the image it has been developing after realizing that they just couldn’t really do data and services, the image of the protector of privacy and liberty. An image that they kicked into overdrive post-Snowden. But that would be too simple because the questions here are a lot more fundamental.
متى يفتح سوق الاسهم في السعوديه How do we – as globally networked individuals living in digitally connected and mutually overlaying societies – define the relationship of transnational corporations and the rules and laws we created?
Cause here’s the fact: Apple was ordered by a democratically legitimate court to help in the investigation of a horrible, capital crime leading to the murder of 14 people by giving it a way to potentially access one specific phone of the more than 700 million phones Apple has made. And Apple refuses.
Which – don’t get me wrong – is their right as an entity in the political system of the US: They can fight the court order using the law. They can also just refuse and see what the government, what law enforcement will do to make them comply. Sometimes the cost of breaking that kind of resistance overshadow the potential value so the request gets dropped. But where do we as individuals stand whose liberty is supposedly at stake? Where is our voice?
One of the main functions of political systems is generating legitimacy for power. While some less-than-desirable systems might generate legitimacy by being the strongest, in modern times less physical legitimizations of power were established: a king for example often is supposed to rule because one or more god(s) say so. Which generates legitimacy especially if you share the same belief. In democracies legitimacy is generated by elections or votes: by giving people the right to speak their mind, elect representatives and be elected the power (and structural violence) that a government exerts is supposedly legitimized.
Some people dispute the legitimacy of even democratically distributed power, and it’s not like they have no point, but let’s not dive into the teachings of Anarchism here. The more mainstream position is that there is a rule of law and that the institutions of the United States as a democracy are legitimized as the representation of US citizens. They represent every US citizen, they each are supposed to keep the political structure, the laws and rules and rights that come with being a US citizen (or living there) intact. And when that system speaks to a company it’s supposed to govern and the company just gives it the finger (but in a really nice letter) how does the public react? They celebrate.
But what’s to celebrate? This is not some clandestine spy network gathering everybody’s every waking move to calculate who might commit a crime in 10 years and assassinate them. This is a concrete case, a request confirmed by a court in complete accordance with the existing practices in many other domains. If somebody runs around and kills people, the police can look into their mail, enter their home. That doesn’t abolish the protections of the integrity of your mail or home but it’s an attempt to balance the rights and liberties of the individual as well as the rights and needs of all others and the social system they form.
Rights hardly ever are absolute, some might even argue that no right whatsoever is absolute: you have the right to move around freely. But I can still lock you out of my home and given certain crimes you might be locked up in prison. You have the right to express yourself but when you start threatening others, limits kick in. This balancing act that I also started this essay with has been going on publicly for ages and it will go on for a lot longer. Because the world changes. New needs might emerge, technology might create whole new domains of life that force us to rethink how we interact and which restrictions we apply. But that’s nothing that one company just decides.
In unconditionally celebrating Cook’s letter a dangerous “apolitical” understanding of politics shows its ugly face: An ideology so obsessed with individual liberty that it happily embraces its new unelected overlords. Code is Law? More like “Cook is Law”.
This isn’t saying that Apple (or any other company in that situation) just has to automatically do everything a government tells them to. It’s quite obvious that many of the big tech companies are not happy about the idea of establishing precedent in helping government authorities. Today it’s the FBI but what if some agency from some dictatorship wants the data from some dissident’s phone? Is a company just supposed to pick and choose?
The world might not grow closer together but it gets connected a lot more and that leads to inconsistent laws, regulations, political ideologies etc colliding. And so far we as mankind have no idea how to deal with it. Facebook gets criticized in Europe for applying very puritanic standards when it comes to nudity but it does follow as a US company established US traditions. Should they apply German traditions which are a lot more open when it comes to depictions of nudity as well? What about rules of other countries? Does Facebook need to follow all? Some? If so which ones?
While this creates tough problems for international law makers, governments and us more mortal people, it does concern companies very little as they can – when push comes to shove – just move their base of operation somewhere else. Which they already do to
“optimize”avoid taxes, about which Cook also recently expressed indignant refusal to comply with US government requirements as “total political crap” – is this also a cause for all of us across the political spectrum to celebrate Apple’s protection of individual liberty? I wonder how the open letter would have looked if Ireland, which is a tax haven many technology companies love to use, would have asked for the same thing California did?
This is not specifically about Apple. Or Facebook. Or Google. Or Volkswagen. Or Nestle. This is about all of them and all of us. If we uncritically accept that transnational corporations decide when and how to follow the rules we as societies established just because right now their (PR) interests and ours might superficially align how can we later criticize when the same companies don’t pay taxes or decide to not follow data protection laws? Especially as a kind of global digital society (albeit of a very small elite) we have between cat GIFs and shaking the fist at all the evil that governments do (and there’s lots of it) dropped the ball on forming reasonable and consistent models for how to integrate all our different inconsistent rules and laws. How we gain any sort of politically legitimized control over corporations, governments and other entities of power.
Tim Cook’s letter starts with the following words:
This moment calls for public discussion, and we want our customers and people around the country to understand what is at stake.
On that he and I completely agree.
Jürgen Geuter (@tante) is a political computer scientist living in Germany. For about 10 years he has been speaking and writing about technology, digitalization, digital culture and the way these influence mainstream society. His writing has been featured in Der Spiegel, Wired Germany and other publications as well as his own blog Nodes in a Social Network, on which an earlier version of this post first appeared.