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Bull Session

Apple vs. FBI

February 25, 2016          

Episode Summary

This week on The Digital Life, we discuss privacy, security, and the hubbub around the FBI request of Apple to unlock an iPhone owned by one of the San Bernardino shooters. Last week, Apple CEO Tim Cook stated that Apple would not comply with the FBI request, as it would force the company to build a backdoor to the iPhone, an outcome that no reasonable person would find acceptable. The US government and the FBI in particular has a history of misusing information in the name of security, dating back to J. Edgar Hoover. And Apple’s defiance of the FBI comes at a time when the US government is still trying to repair the damage of the Snowden revelations about surveillance and massive data collection. Nonetheless, the government is attempting to force Apple’s compliance insisting that the law, not the company’s technology, should not be the final word on access for data critical to an investigation.

Jon:
Welcome to episode 144 of The Digital Life, a show about our ventures in the world of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett, and with me is founder and cohost, Dirk Knemeyer.

Dirk:
Greetings, Jon.

Jon:
So, for our topic today, I’d like to discuss privacy, security, and the hubbub around the FBI request of Apple to unlock an iPhone that was owned by one of the San Bernardino shooters and, of course, Apple’s refusal at least so far, to do so.

Dirk:
That story has certainly been pinned to the top of the news sites for the last couple of weeks.

Jon:
I think it’s probably worth starting with the context of this request from the FBI because it comes on the heels of, I think, some growing dissatisfaction with governmental interference with privacy issues and security issues. Historically, we know that the government has used and misused data of its citizens in the past. The FBI has a- let’s just say a tumultuous history when it comes to that, going all the way back to J. Edgar Hoover. In recent memory, we have the NSA revelations by Snowden, essentially revealing that we’re more or less in a surveillance state and to make matters worse we’re even surveilling our allies, our supposed friends. And their …

Dirk:
All the big nations are doing that though. Let’s not act like that’s some weirdness here in the United States.

Jon:
But this is, of course, the landscape of the FBI request which is a public request, so we’re aware of it because it’s big news but it’s certainly not in a vacuum. This position by Apple is certainly related, at least, to the environment that the request comes in. I think that gives us some initial grounding at least. Last week, Apple CEO, Tim Cook says that the FBI order would force the company to build a back door to the iPhone and that no reasonable person would find this acceptable. This is his stake in the ground. He’s sort of drawing the line and that’s where Apple stands. Soon after that, you have Google CEO siding with Apple and basically saying that getting into the phone would sabotage the security of tens of millions of American citizens.

On the opposite side, in the social media ecosphere, you have presidential candidates weighing in because it is an election year, for further context of this argument so grandstanding is encouraged. You’ve got folks like Donald Trump calling for the boycott of Apple products. Ironically, the guy is- or maybe un-ironically, the guy is tweeting on his iPhone as he’s calling for the Apple boycott.

At a certain point, there’s an additional motion filed that’s going to force Apple to comply and in the document it says that Apple should not be allowed to design and market its products to allow technology, rather than the law, to allow access to data. This is made to be a critical stand now, that Apple should not be allowed to block access when the law says that it should.

In that environment, in that exchange there, what do you see developing, Dirk, just in terms of the positions that big companies are taking now, in regards to privacy of data? Where does the consumer end up in all of this because I’m not sure- the cynic in me wants to say that it really doesn’t matter what’s happening in this surface argument, albeit sort of a big deal right now. But, my general feeling is that privacy is sliding out from under us, kind of like a mudslide at this point. What’s your take on it?

Dirk:
Well, I think it has slid and I think our cliff house has shattered down on the rocks already so, I think it’s over. It’s done. The sliding, where to stop, it’s all done. Look, this is a PR thing. Apple and Google, all of these big technology companies give scads of data to the government as it is now. Scads of it. So, it’s not as if that’s not already happening but now Apple is going to keep it from happening. No, it’s happening constantly, constantly, the request for information and information being given.

At a certain level, it’s just a PR thing. It’s just a thing where now Apple can rattle their sword and look like they’re holding out against the big bad government. While in the other hand, they’re sliding them information from other requests, for other purposes. A lot of me is skeptical. On the consumer side, certainly the Apple position is better for consumers. Not, again from the standpoint of this sort of fictional notion of, “oh well, we don’t want the government to have access to our data.” At the end of the day, they’re going to have access to some or all of it by hook or by crook.

It actually does come down to the product design and the device. If Apple’s contention is true, then they’ve designed the iPhone in such a way that it’s theoretically, nearly impregnable to be broken into. And they’re taking the position, “hey if we have to design it so we can break into it and get to this terrorist information, that is going to create a liability for all of the users.” So on that side, on the consumer side of it, we certainly would fall on the Apple side just from the standpoint of, we have a lot of sensitive things on our device and if what they’re saying is true and correct, our devices in and of themselves maintain more integrity for locally keeping some information more protected, basically.

The big picture, this is a question of what is the greatest authority. Ted Cruz is going to say the greatest authority is God. The Founding Fathers- well, I don’t want to talk for the Founding Fathers. There are people who would say that the greatest authority is the government. Apple, Google, other companies flouting government requests are making a case that the greatest authority is the corporation. Is it God, is it nation, or is it corporation? For me, at that more philosophical level, that’s where the interesting questions need to be asked and, theoretically, where easy answers and decisions to these more small things would just flow out of.

Jon:
Do you see this as a salvo in the- sort of the international corporate entity being, maybe not the equivalent of a nation state today, but on its way?

Dirk:
I won’t go as far as saying on its way, but it is certainly a micro example of a company trying to resist the authority of the government.

Jon:
Sure, and there’s lots of questions that come along with international law, especially with trade agreements, et cetera that supersede national laws or local laws, where corporations can sort of be over and above the governments of the countries that they’re operating in. Essentially, there’s a little bit of that going on here. It sort of makes me wonder what Tim Cook’s play is here because, as you said, they’re cooperating in other ways.

Dirk:
So many other ways.

Jon:
Is this corporate diplomacy? Is this the new era- you know, it reminds me of the same sort of dances that diplomats have on the world stage, whether you’re talking about John Kerry and his counterpart in Iran, or Putin and Obama. There’s the show of strength, followed by the back door deal, or whatever. It feels like a similar game is being played just at a macro level there.

Dirk:
Look, let’s take Tim Cook at face value and let’s say that the only way to get the data out of the terrorist’s phone is to create something that basically undermines the production on every phone. It can boil down to just a simple dollars and cents. Because, if they develop that, if they go through and do it and they break into the terrorist’s phone and now they’ve let this genie out of the bottle that could be taken and get into lots of more people’s data, that would require them, then, to fix it, basically. And, to change the security and the protocols on future phones, on future devices, so that the thing that they created to break into the terrorist’s phone is no longer applicable.

That all could be done, and then the security thing isn’t a problem. That’s going to cost a lot of freaking money. A lot of freaking money. The thing to break in probably won’t be so expensive, but to create a whole new set of security protocols, yadda yadda yadda, holy cats that’s a lot of money, right?

Jon:
Plus, there’s the trust issue, right? I don’t know if you can quite as easily quantify that in dollars and cents, if you think that Apple is just sort of delivering information to the government. I don’t know, do you buy the Samsung phone instead? Maybe. There’s a trust and branding issue there as well.

Dirk:
It’s true. That’s true.

Jon:
Let’s take that scenario in reverse from the one you just mentioned, which is they might not be able to break into the phone today but it sort of makes you wonder if you should be upgrading to the next model because, you know, this is a huge hassle, right? Dealing with- this costs Apple money regardless of what the outcome is. Makes you wonder what the contingency plans are for dealing with scenarios like this in the future and whether that gets baked into technology like the iPhone, easier ways to sort of manage this kind of scenario.

Dirk:
I think that’s all completely irrelevant. Let me tell you why. We have so many devices, we have so many bits of software, where all of our crap is, there’s no way in hell that we can keep track of, “oh this security thing happened with that company at this moment in time, so future versions after version blobbidy blobbidy blobbidy blah, may be compromised so I’m not going to upgrade this thing past this point. It’s just impossible, right? You just have to throw your chips in the air and you either are participating, using the devices, are part of this surveillance economy where …

Jon:
Nice.

Dirk:
Where our data is being sucked and is in places where it can beat us like a club in the future, or we don’t do the devices. We just opt out of the whole freaking thing and go back to say the stone ages, right? But, I mean, what feels like the stone ages.

Jon:
The nineties.

Dirk:
Yeah, also known as the nineties. Realistically, are we going to be doing that? No, we’re not. We’re on board with this thing and it’s going to fuck us or it isn’t. It is what it is. It’s the nature of the human species as it exists today where, two things- number one, we’re incentivized to take advantage of other people. There are financial incentives that reward us for throttling others. That’s a problem. The second problem is, in our evolution as individuals we are unrefined, we’re basic, we’re selfish, we’re very animalistic, and so we’re going to continue doing dumb, stupid, destructive things, regardless of the incentive systems that are going to end up pissing and pooping in any pool that we’re in, including the ones of personal digital technology.

Jon:
I’ll take it that you’re more of a technology skeptic these days based on that.

Dirk:
I’m more of a human skeptic. I think that at it’s best that humans can do wonderful things and if we look at the exemplars of humanity, they are really amazing, wonderful, inspiring individuals. I think that for most people, most of the time, we’re kind of filthy animals. I think it’s that filthy animalistic stuff that is what continues to punish us on the security side of so many things.

Jon:
How do you see this scenario playing out over the next couple weeks because it’s certainly still in play, right? So, Apple is still holding the line as of today and the FBI is still knocking on the door. We don’t expect to see Tim Cook carted off in handcuffs any time soon so what’s the end game for- what’s the face saving measure for the government and how does this wind down after getting so fever pitched, right?

Dirk:
Yeah, I don’t have a complete answer for that. I will say that the FBI will end up with the terrorist’s data. The details around that, I don’t know how it’s going to play out but at the end of the day, the terrorist’s data is going to be had by the FBI and, to be honest, I probably want the terrorist’s data to be had by the FBI.

Jon:
Yeah, I think you’re probably right on both of those fronts there. We’ll have to wait and see but my guess is, as well, that the government wins out in this one, especially because it’s such a public affront. I would be surprised if- you know, there might be some kind of closed deal with Apple, but I would think that the government would want to make it known that you can’t refuse to open up a data store to them.

Dirk:
I’m not sure about that. For the government- it hurts the government to seem too oppressive and seem too overbearing. I don’t think they would mind if it was a back room deal. They just want the data. They just want what they want at the end of the day without seeming like too big and bad. If they seem too big and bad, at some point things will turn in a very different way that won’t be good for the government and for the systems of control that have been built. I’d be shocked if they felt some need to really show up Apple in this. I think they just want their goddamn data.

Jon:
Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com. That’s just one L in the digital life. And, go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody, so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening, or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter, @jonfollet. It’s J-O-N F-O-L-L-E-T-T. And, of course, the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios, which you can check out at goinvo.com. That’s G-O-I-N-V-O.com. Dirk?

Dirk:
You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer, that’s @D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R, or email me dirk@goinvo.com.

Jon:
So that’s it for episode 144 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett and we’ll see you next time.

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