By Doug Magill
I find that principles have no real force except when one is well fed. Mark Twain
The FBI has reported that it has found a way to access the data on the iPhone used by the San Bernardino shooter, Syed Farook. While not releasing details of how it was able to accomplish this, Apple’s internal technology team is probably overloading cell towers with calls to known commercial encryption technology companies trying to discern who may have been working with the government. With the long term intent of hounding them out of business.
The NSA probably had the means to break in to the iPhone but, interestingly enough, that secretive organization has not been mentioned in regard to this controversy. Because it reports to the Defense Department and the FBI to the Justice Department, there were probably statutory concerns that prevented the NSA from being involved. Regardless, the FBI undoubtedly was able to solicit the assistance of a foreign company to help them – to avoid dealing with the political issues associated with using any government or foreign intelligence resources.
In an interview a few weeks ago John McAfee – of McAfee antivirus fame – claimed he could put a team together in a matter of weeks that could crack Apple’s security. If the FBI was interested he said he would be glad to help them as he knew who to contact. The implication being that there were a number of individuals in the security world that had the expertise and the tools to crack an iPhone.
The controversy got quite heated, with Apple CEO Tim Cook issuing a blistering 1100-word letter to Apple customers criticizing the government and trying to position himself, and Apple, as champions of privacy.
The controversy centered on the 10-attempt safeguard Apple uses. It anyone attempts more than 10 times to access a locked iPhone it automatically wipes itself clean (no cloths involved). The FBI had a court order from a judge to force Apple to find a way to disable that security feature, and then they would use their own technology experts to discern the password and access the contents of the phone.
Apple has cooperated with the government before in accessing contents of its devices, but the head of the company decided that this would be a great opportunity to market the iPhone’s enhanced encryption and security features and show disdain for parochial American concerns. After all, it is a multinational company worried about Chinese and European customers that wanted to feel that whatever business they transacted with their phones would be secure from government intrusion. Any government’s intrusion.
The FBI did not appear to overreach in this case, only desiring a way to disable the phone-wiping protection on this single phone. Contrary to Cook’s claims, they were not looking to create a permanent backdoor into Apple’s encryption methodology. But, why waste a good marketing opportunity?
Lost in the press releases and angry letters and vitriolic statements is the fact that 14 people were killed by the owner of that iPhone. And he, along with his wife, may be connected to others that have similar designs on their coworkers and neighbors. Should another incident occur and be connected to Farook, the condemnation of Apple and the government would reach volcanic proportions.
But Apple’s worldwide marketing concern seems to be the core of its reaction to this event. Which is sad, because at best marketing can be informative, while at worst it can lead to portraying an image that is misleading and possibly downright dishonest. Apple was joined by Facebook and Google – a rare triumvirate in the viciously competitive high-tech world – in claiming moral superiority in the concern for privacy over security.
All three companies profess the standard liberal bromides about caring for people and international self-righteousness over the narrow parochialism of national sovereignty. Unfortunately, by focusing on Apple’s concerns and not the country’s security, they have exposed themselves as greedy and self-interested. They are not worried about the effects of their policies on individuals, and not interested in cooperating to help alleviate legitimate fears about a phenomenon that is causing consternation world-wide. And ultimately, they really aren’t interested in the well-being of the people who use their products.
One supposes that the decision makers at these companies feel they are above nationalism, and have a vision that transcends narrow individualism. Not unlike our uninvolved and pathologically dishonest president. With a compliant and partisan media, they will continue to comfort themselves in the shroud of smug superiority. Right up until the moment a bomb goes off in one of their buildings and they run screaming into the streets and find the only means to deal with the now worldwide threat of terrorism lies in the expertise of the government they disdain.
Doug Magill is a former Chief Technology Officer for a major corporation and is now a freelance writer, voice-over talent and communications consultant. He can be reached at email@example.com.