February 19, 2016

Applegate: This is Not Sustainable

The hoopla this week around Apple’s grand stand against the Feds’ demand that the company compromise the dead phone of a dead man (http://www.wsj.com/articles/tim-cooks-dangerous-game-1455745398?mod=e2fb) evokes a deeper and more important concern.

At first blush, this would seem a no-brainer: 

Bad guy terrorist gets offed and leaves behind a pin code-protected phone which might host information important to law enforcement.  Why would the maker of that phone not crack the code to enable the government to access whatever intel it might contain?

Simple answer: Because our government has demonstrated that it cannot be trusted not to leverage this particular “one-off” to abuse the privacy of any and all of us, because, well, because they can.

A sad, sad state of affairs.

It’s no surprise that our government (every government) engages in espionage and surveillance.  And, to some extent, rightfully so, if appropriately controlled (a BIG if, as we have all learned in recent years).  

But, as technology has advanced so rapidly over the last couple of decades, control, reason, judgement and laws have been eclipsed, leading to rampant government abuse – because, again, they can.

Ed Snowden has demonstrated time and again that our government has – perhaps unwittingly (I'm being gracious here) - been overcome by technology run amok.

Lawful intercept, review, storage, etc. have all fallen by the wayside as more and more data is gleaned via more and more arcane methods, all justified by the fear-based culture that our government has nurtured over the better part of the last two decades.

So, is it any surprise that Apple battles back against government demands to crack just this one phone?

No, not at all.

American information and communications technology (ICT) leaders are reeling in the wake of all-things-Snowden – their global sales and brands suffering as trust in their commitment to data integrity has effectively dissolved.

Apple is on the ropes.  Others will be.

In the absence of trust, capitulating to this supposed one-off request might well ruin a company.  And Apple knows this.  Notwithstanding government assurances to the contrary, there is very little reason to believe that the one-off compromise wouldn’t become the norm, or, worse, be used by “bad guys.”

Moreover, governments around the world would almost certainly mimic the U.S. demands, as well as abuse of the output, further shaking everyday individual trust in all things digital.

How did we get here?

Governments have always engaged in what might seem unsavory activities in pursuit of the betterment or protection of society, with at times all-too-ready disregard for the rights and liberties of the governed.  The general population simply didn’t know, or perhaps care.

But, today’s remarkable digital world that we have learned is subject to government abuse also facilitates heretofore unheard of transparency – no matter how much the powers-that-be would prefer certain activities to remain in the shadows, they are increasingly frustrated to manage those shadows.

But, knowing that we now know, they still just can’t help themselves.  And we, post-Snowden, are very challenged to trust them.

And that’s why Cook has made his stand. 

Don’t get me wrong – Cook’s not just all about our privacy, rights, civil liberties, moms and apple (sorry, couldn’t help myself) pies.  I believe that he truly worries about these things, but his bottom line has to be preserving sales, particularly overseas sales.

And, in the wake of all-things-Snowden, overseas folk trust our government less than we might.  

Sadly, in this context, the government’s true intent isn’t even really a factor...although they could – and should - have more carefully crafted their demands in such a fashion so as to not raise the spectre of universal compromise.

Indeed, if the Feds had simply delivered the phone to Apple with the appropriate legal authorization to crack it, perhaps we'd be in a different situation. Demanding that Apple create an entirely new version of its OS that compromises built in protections to just crack this one phone seems, uh, unreasonable, perhaps unbelievable.

Bottom line: If Apple bows to the pressure this time, they may well be effectively bowing out altogether…

This is NOT a sustainable situation.  Government needs to take real steps toward restoring trust, for instance, for starters, publicly reining in defense and intelligence community activities and behaviors - particularly here in the Homeland -  that have utterly abandoned the rule of law.

Government needs to rebuild confidence.  Incessant fear-mongering has been the backbone of two decades of unbridled abuse of our privacy and liberties  - anything and everything has been deemed justifiable, including the revoking of American rights and, yes, lives, to ensure that one or another "they"doesn't somehow prevail at something.

Until and unless trust and confidence are restored, the likes of Cook and Apple have little choice but to stand up to the powers-that-be, unless they are willing to go out of business, which hardly seems a result that would be in our best national - and national security - interest.