Earlier this month, Apple released a software update for iPhones, iPads, and iPod Touches that prevents someone from transferring data off the device if it’s been locked for over an hour.
Why Should I Care?
Companies make tools that bypass Apple’s security features and allow someone to access user data on an iPhone even when it’s locked with a passcode. Law enforcement officials use these tools to unlock iPhones of interest to ongoing investigations and gain access to texts, location data, emails, and more.
Logistically, it can be hard for law enforcement officers to get the phone to one of these devices in under 60 minutes, so Apple’s small change seems to render many of these devices useless. A win for privacy?
Sort of. Let’s dive in.
This ain’t a scene, it’s a goddamn arms race.
Apple and law enforcement officials have had tête-à-têtes before.
Back in 2016, the two faced off after a judge in California ordered Apple to unlock an iPhone used by Syed Farook, one of the two perpetrators of the December 2015 mass shooting that killed 14 people in San Bernardino. Apple refused, leading to an impasse that lasted for weeks. Apple CEO Tim Cook wrote an open letter that pulled no punches:
“The government could extend this breach of privacy and demand that Apple build surveillance software to intercept your messages, access your health records or financial data, track your location, or even access your phone’s microphone or camera without your knowledge.”
Apple didn’t want to write software that undermined user privacy, while government officials couldn’t see why Apple wasn’t helping them solve crimes.
Here’s James Comey, former head of the FBI:
“There will come a day when it will matter a great deal to the lives of people … that we will be able to gain access [to iPhones].”
And here’s John J. Escalante, chief of detectives for Chicago’s police department:
“Apple will become the phone of choice for the pedophile […] "The average pedophile at this point is probably thinking, I’ve got to get an Apple phone.”
And, on the other side, here’s Kurt Opsahl at the EFF:
“The U.S. government wants us to trust that it won’t misuse this power. But we can all imagine the myriad ways this new authority could be abused. Even if you trust the U.S. government, […] governments around the world will surely demand that Apple undermine the security of their citizens as well.”
That impasse came to an end precisely because law enforcement managed to get access to the phone using a third-party cracking tool.
But why such strong emotions?
Fundamentally, it’s because our cellphones are so much more than phones these days. For anyone wanting to build a picture of our lives, cellphones have it all: our text messages, emails, financial data, health stats, and location information.
Naturally, we feel some discomfort at the idea of the police rootling through these devices. Even if we’re not doing anything illegal, we don’t always feel like sharing our private information (our text messages, banking details, or the photos we’ve taken) with strangers.
Here’s the new problem: we carry so much more information with us than ever before. In 1950, when you landed and went through border control, the agents could only search your your luggage. Everyday folks couldn’t carry too much, because paper was heavy.
Compare that to now, when our phones (and computers, and tablets, and hard drives…) are getting smaller but the amount of information you can store on them is constantly growing.
In an earlier draft of this newsletter, I wrote that I expected the news that Apple were cutting off third-party unlocking tools would be the second battle in the war between Apple and law enforcement officers.
Now, I’m less sure. This new feature hasn’t received the mainstream attention that the San Bernardino iPhone case did.
What I expect now is that we’ll see an arms race develop between Apple and the companies that make those third-party unlocking tools. It’ll be a quieter sort of cat-and-mouse game, where Apple plugs new holes in the iPhone software when they can.
But yes – when is a cellphone not a cellphone?
When it’s really a small computer carrying huge amounts of information about every facet of our lives. This has a bunch of interesting consequences that I’m sure I’ll explore in coming issues.
Bonus round: it was never just about terrorism.
On the pro-law enforcement side, much of the rhetoric boils down to why won’t Apple help us fight terrorism? But law enforcement officers never intended to limit this to national security.
In February 2016, just after San Bernardino, The New York Times reported
that the Justice Department had at at least nine other iPhones around the country that they wanted Apple to decrypt for them. On the severity of the crimes, the NYT quoted officials as saying that the cases “appear to involve run-of-the-mill prosecutions for offenses like drug trafficking and pornography, rather than a high-profile terrorism investigation.” That same month, a judge in New York denied
a government request for Apple to unlock an iPhone in a drug trafficking case.
As always, I welcome your feedback, and I’d love to hear your suggestions for what you’d like to see covered in this newsletter. I’m @tommycollison
on Twitter, or you can email firstname.lastname@example.org
. Please get in touch! 📩📬
A note on numbering: on the homepage
for this newsletter, you can see previous issues, currently numbered #1 through #3. I sent an issue with a column I wrote for the Irish Independent
as “Column #1.5,” a sort of mini-issue between #1 (the launch issue) and #2 (the revenge porn issue). This made Collision Course #2 the third issue. That’s confusing, and so this edition of Collision Course is a leap edition, bringing my numbering back on track.