Farook’s Phone: The FBI versus Apple (and Everyone Else)

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The Federal Bureau of Investigation wants to know what’s on Syed Farook’s Apple iPhone. As the old saying goes, people in hell want icewater too.

The San Bernardino killer’s phone is encrypted. More than ten attempts to guess the correct six-digit pass code (out of a million possibilities) will result in destruction of all data on the phone. They’re stuck. At least they say they are (I’m skeptical). They want Apple to help.

Forcing Apple to do so would be a simple matter of issuing a subpoena if the company had the information in question, but it doesn’t. So the FBI wants Apple to create an entirely new version of its operating system that allows them to bypass the ten-try limit. And  a federal judge, citing an 18th century law called the All Writs Act, has ordered Apple to just that.

As I write this, Apple has, quite reasonably, refused the demand. Presumably there’s a court battle in the offing.

Apple should win in the courts, and in any event what the FBI is demanding should be impossible. If what the FBI is demanding isn’t impossible on this generation of iPhones, Apple should be working overtime on a system update that MAKES it impossible , just in case the courts side with the FBI.

This is not about Syed Farook, nor is it the equivalent of a demand to hand over the key to an apartment because the cops have a search warrant. This is about you, and it’s the equivalent of a demand to hand over the keys to 700 million apartments just in case the cops ever take a notion to rummage around in your closet.

Am I worried? No, and yes.

No, because if Apple folds and does the FBI’s will, people who value their privacy will simply switch to devices and/or third party encryption software that neither the FBI nor Apple can compromise in that particular way.

Yes, because this is a red line in terms of precedent. The US government has been at war on the rights and the privacy of every phone and computer user in the world for decades, but this is an open declaration of that war, the moment when the gloves come off.

The state doesn’t own your phone. The state doesn’t own your data. The state doesn’t own YOU. Time to put the tyrants on notice: We’re all out of icewater, fellas.

Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.

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Also published on Medium.

  • JdL

    Nicely written, Mr. K.

  • Fred Johnson

    Two things really bother me about this case. (other than the obvious potential invasion of privacy) First, The Donald has said that Apple should succumb to the gov’t and do what they are told. IMO, Trump is a bully who will get what he wants through any means necessary, liberties be damned! And, with now two primary victories under his belt, it is entirely possible that he could be elected. Yes, this crosses a red line, and Trump is wanting to completely eradicate that line.

    Second worry is that a vast majority of his supporters are probably OK with this. Were it Obama, Clinton, or perhaps even Cruz or Rubio, these same people would be screaming about their privacy. But with Trump, they are so fooled by the sunshine he is blowing up their ass that they don’t see the long term effects the UV rays of that sunshine will have on their colon.

    • Fred,

      I think you’re right on both counts.

      On the other hand, my newest column is about something GOOD that Trump did.

      I try not to let myself get buffaloed every four years by the “this is the most consequential election EVAH!!!!” talk, but this one is certainly feeling like a big deal.

      • Fred Johnson

        Yeah, that article led me to this one….you know, the whole wormhole thing. And, like you, I don’t wanna be a sucker to the hype, but I see long term consequences coming out of this. I also hate to fall victim to the Hitler comparisons (I completely and totally disagreed with Obama, but his Hitler comparisons were a bit extreme) but I can see minor parallels here. I know that Trump has to reckon with 544 (543 until Scalia is replaced) other people to enact his agenda and that his promises (threats) are nothing more right now, but he has rabid, near mindless, support from his followers. Reading comments on Facebook really scares me. I fear that he could push the limits of his authority and easily get away with it.

        • I agree.

          I did my best to avoid falling victim to Clinton Derangement Syndrome, Bush Derangement Syndrome or Obama Derangement Syndrome. Not always successfully, but fairly so, and I tried.

          Trump definitely looks like the culmination of the path we’ve been on for a couple of decades, toward the whole “put a single guy on a pedestal” model. Maybe not QUITE Mussolini or Hitler, but at least the Jefe/Caudillo Latin American strongman kind of thing, a “unitary executive” as Bush said who is the “decider.” That’s getting more and more dangerous and more and more ugly.

  • MamaLiberty

    The phone didn’t belong to Farook in the first place, and it looks as if another county employee messed up the recovery. This whole FBI thing looks like a red herring. The giant front door access they’re demanding has nothing at all to do with “terrorism,” and everything to do with the usual… control.

    http://abcnews.go.com/US/san-bernardino-shooters-apple-id-passcode-changed-government/story?id=37066070
    The password for the San Bernardino shooter’s iCloud account associated
    with his iPhone was reset hours after authorities took possession of the
    device.

    The Justice Department acknowledged in its court filing that the
    password of Syed Farook’s iCloud account had been reset. The filing
    states, “the owner [San Bernardino County Department of Public Health],
    in an attempt to gain access to some information in the hours after the
    attack, was able to reset the password remotely, but that had the effect
    of eliminating the possibility of an auto-backup.”

    Apple could have recovered information from the iPhone had the iCloud
    password not been reset, the company said. If the phone was taken to a
    location where it recognized the Wi-Fi network, such as the San
    Bernardino shooters’ home, it could have been backed up to the cloud,
    Apple suggested.

    The auto reset was executed by a county information technology employee,
    according to a federal official. Federal investigators only found out
    about the reset after it had occurred and that the county employee acted
    on his own, not on the orders of federal authorities, the source said.

    Apple executives say the iPhone was in the possession of the government
    when iCloud password was reset. A federal official familiar with the
    investigation confirmed that federal investigators were indeed in
    possession of the phone when the reset occurred.

  • ssemans

    Attended the WA State Republican caucus Saturday out of curiosity – my precinct had two for Kasich and three for Cruz. FBI vs Apple came up and opinions ranged from uncertain to strongly supporting Apple, with the supporters quick to school the undecideds.