Feb. 22 2016 04:12 PM

How this smart-phone standoff affects us all

    So where do you come down on Apple giving away the keys to its kingdom (and your smartphone) to the FBI, in order crack a terrorist's iPhone?

    That's the latest in the "personal freedom vs. personal security" battle that's been unspooling since 9/11, and we all know how it's mostly gone so far: Usually the tech companies have rolled over and played lapdog. But last week Apple CEO Tim Cook wrote, in a much-shared public letter, that the company would not create a backdoor (e.g., secret access) to its device to access the information of one of the San Bernardino shooters.

    Before we get into what's happening now, it's good to step back a bit, because history is happening so fast and there's so much distraction that what came before is too often forgotten.

    Thus, you may not remember that Apple only introduced enhanced encryption to the iPhone operating system in September 2014, making it (presumably) impossible to crack.

    That was a step forward for Americans' personal digital security, but you've got to remember why they did it: Whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked information revealing the NSA had the capacity to hack iPhones and was doing so through its PRISM program (PRISM had been rumored to exist for years, which the government denied, but that's yet another story).

    Moreover, before late 2014, Federal investigators could bust a device if they sent it to Apple with a search warrant. The company would unlock the tech for authorities and send it back.

    Since then, according to London's Guardian newspaper, FBI director James Comey has been trying to figure out a way around the new-and-improved software. But the Obama administration told him to back off because it didn't want a public battle with one of America's most popular (not to mention valuable) companies. Bad optics, you know.

    The terrorist attack, however, changed the game for the government, and gave them plausible impetus to put Apple to heel. The killer's phone has a four-digit code that will cause the phone to essentially self-destruct if you don't get the numbers right in 10 tries.

    The court order—ruled after a Justice Department argument based on the All Writs Act of 1789—demands Apple build software that would allow the FBI to enter as many combinations as it takes to crack the code. For four digits (about 10,000 combinations), a whiz-bang computer could knock it out fast.

    But that's it. As soon as Apple builds the software for the Feds to crack its phone for the shooter, it's given them software that enables them to crack your phone. Or mine. And while what's on your phone or mine may not be all that bad (I've got a John Mayer album, I confess), what about someone investigating government corruption? A political opponent? A guy who suspects his wife is having an affair?

    Because, as self-described "cyber-security legend" (and either possible murderer or they're-out-to-get-me paranoiac with good reason) John McAfee wrote on Business Insider Friday, it only takes one bad apple in the government to make it a whole lot worse than simply the Feds metaphorically reading over your shoulder. One compromised federal operative, be it with money or drugs or women (or men) or whatever vice of their choice, and suddenly Russia, China and/or the terrorist bogeyman of the week gain access to every iPhone on the planet.

    Am I exaggerating? The fact that nobody wants to talk on the record about it suggests I'm not.

    I contacted several mobile developers and cyber-security experts around town, but only two of them got back to me and nobody wanted to talk on the record. I can't say I blame them. As one said: "There's no upside here. Either you piss off the government or Apple, and neither of those guys do you want to get on the wrong side of."

    Another, after pointing out Apple's history of helping the government crack its products in the past, said: "Look, who do you trust here? Actually, you shouldn't trust anybody, but I'm going to lean towards Apple on this one. The FBI actually said that they would use this back door only once, for this case, and then never again. Does anybody actually believe that crap? They're drooling to get this."

    Before I close, here's something else I got from one of the two guys who would at least talk on background about the FBI/Apple dustup:

    FBI director James Comey, who is spearheading the charge to bust the iPhone, was positioned as a righteous iconoclast in the Bush Administration when he was U.S. Deputy Attorney General, because he allegedly had misgivings about personal surveillance overreach. It was these very bona fides that allowed President Obama to appoint him FBI Director, even though he was a Republican and a Bush guy.

    Is your head spinning? You're not alone.

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