U.S. government wants a bite out of Apple

The FBI wants a master key to Apple's operating system; Tim Cook says 'no.' Edward Snowden's NSA revelations show why trusting the feds with this is a bad idea.

Former NSA contractor and Edward Snowden.
Former NSA contractor  Edward Snowden

WASHINGTON, Feb. 18, 2016 — In 2011, search-engine giant Google leveled with its customers in a “transparency report” that said between the months of July and December of the previous year, the Internet company complied with a staggering 94 percent of U.S. government requests for access to customer information.

In 2013, cyber-security contractor Edward Snowden revealed the existence of the National Security Agency’s Prism Program, which collects the metadata of millions of Americans doing business with at least nine major Internet companies. In 2014, he accused Google—among others—of being a willing accomplice in domestic government spying.

Snowden called Facebook and Google “dangerous services” people should avoid if they wish to preserve their privacy.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange told the BBC there is little daylight separating Google from your average government intelligence-gathering agency:

Google’s business model is to spy. It makes more than 80 percent of its money by collecting information about people, pooling it together, storing it, indexing it, building profiles of people to predict their interests and behavior … Google, in terms of how it works, its actual practice, is almost identical to the National Security Agency.

Ironically, Google’s corporate motto is, “Don’t be evil.”

On Tuesday, Apple Inc. CEO Tim Cook issued a public statement saying the “United States government has demanded that Apple take an unprecedented step which threatens the security of our customers.”

At issue is the encryption function of the popular Apple iPhone, used by 75.2 million Americans in 2015. Cook said the FBI “wants us to make a new version of the iPhone operating system, circumventing several important security features … In the wrong hands, this software—which does not exist today—would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession.”

CEO of Apple Inc. Tim Cook.
CEO of Apple Inc. Tim Cook.

Cook was responding to U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym’s order that Apple provide the FBI “technical assistance” to “bypass or disable the auto-erase function” on the iPhone, which expunges stored data after 10 failed password attempts.

The judicial order specifically applies to the iPhone of jihadist mass-shooter Syed Farook, who with his wife shot and killed 14 people in San Bernardino County in December.

Cook says the government told him an Apple iPhone hack would “only be used once, on one phone. But that’s simply not true. Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices. In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks—from restaurants and banks to stores and homes. No reasonable person would find that acceptable.”

At the height of the NSA domestic surveillance scandal, President Obama attempted to dampen public anxiety by humanizing his cyber watchers for doing an “extraordinarily difficult job—one in which actions are second-guessed, success is unreported, and failure can be catastrophic.”

He assured the nation: “The men and women of the intelligence community, including the NSA, consistently follow protocols designed to protect the privacy of ordinary people. They’re not abusing authorities in order to listen to your private phone calls or read your emails. When mistakes are made—which is inevitable in any large and complicated human enterprise—they correct those mistakes. Laboring in obscurity, often unable to discuss their work even with family and friends.”

The Constitution’s Bill of Rights was designed to help our government reduce “mistakes” by limiting its power.

The Fourth Amendment is absolute in protecting the individual from that “complicated human enterprise” known as the state from unreasonably rifling through our “persons, houses, papers, and effects.”

It further requires the state to secure warrants “upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized,” (emphasis added).

But as the Manchester Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald reported, “Under the Obama administration the communication records of millions of U.S. citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk—regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing.”

Lazy apologists for this egregious violation of natural rights counter that they have “nothing to hide” from the government: “Violate our civil rights to your heart’s content.”

“When you say I don’t care about the right to privacy because I have nothing to hide,” said NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden to the Guardian, it’s “no different than saying I don’t care about freedom of speech because I have nothing to say or freedom of the press because I have nothing to write.”

CEO Tim Cook said in his statement to Apple customers, “It would be wrong for the government to force us to build a backdoor into our products. And ultimately, we fear that this demand would undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect.”

That might be too much to expect from a “complicated human enterprise” that has increasingly become a god-like law unto itself.

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