The very public spat between the FBI and Apple over the Cupertino tech colossus’ refusal to develop code which circumvents its own mobile security and accesses the San Bernardino terrorist’s iPhone has polarized the populous and once again brought to the public’s attention the endless modern tug-of-war between data confidentiality and government accessibility. However, when the dust settles, Apple can and will spin the results to its benefit – acquiesce and claim corporate social responsibility, or stonewall and build an image of the outsider maverick bolstering its cache of cool. Unfortunately for the FBI, it just may get exactly what it asked for, and it won’t like the results; either way, the FBI loses.
While stakeholders in the Apple/FBI battle will argue responsibility vs. privacy and roundly assert their own argument’s righteousness, the FBI’s unequivocal mistake has been galvanizing Apple’s defiance into a front-page battle cry for a post-Snowden, techno-suspicious public. Law enforcement intelligence collection and investigation techniques always work best when they are conducted quietly and unobserved. By allowing their covert relationship to enter the public conscious so readily, the FBI has positioned itself to lose in the long term.
No intelligence professional ever announces to the world what cannot be collected on – if s/he does, then every ill-intentioned consumer converts to exactly that technology. Therefore, there is no benefit for the FBI to announce to the public that it cannot circumvent a security feature on an iPhone. Did the FBI then make a rookie mistake in the intelligence game when it did just exactly that? Not necessarily. More likely, the FBI isn’t as helpless accessing that data as they have led the public to believe. The FBI is no JV squad of law enforcement officials, so it is unlikely they made a tactical blunder by revealing to the public any true technical incapability. As witnessed most recently, the FBI’s purchasing of a bug exploit to circumvent further legal wrangling with Apple’s security apparatus has certainly not proven new, and instead has driven once again significant progress in the cybersecurity research field. No, the better narrative for understanding this past month’s developments is that the FBI tried to capitalize on and politicize the issue in a bid to sway domestic public opinion, force Apple’s hand, and set a precedent for future tech-dependent federal law investigations. Instead, it had no true leverage, it let Apple claim a high-road victory, and it aired its dirty laundry in public. The decrypted reading: Big mistake, FBI.
What was the FBI’s end game? How about a custom-built master key capable of circumventing Apple’s proprietary security features. While the FBI claimed it wanted a one-off spot assist, Apple feared that any code written to overcome its authentication procedures (i.e., enter more than 10 wrong inputs of a 4-digit passcode and the phone’s memory drive would be rendered permanently inaccessible) would live on in FBI laboratories, replicable and effectively no longer within Apple’s control; code has a way of proliferating, so any promise to use it once and then extinguish it rang false for the security hawks at Apple. Yet had the FBI acquired such a master key quietly, then it could have been an invaluable asset for law enforcement and the public would have remained none the wiser. Let old persuasions be forgot: at this point there is no way for the public NOT to know whether or not the FBI has indeed acquired from Apple just such a custom-written key. Therefore, imagine this entire episode starting from Apple’s point of view: If they write a master key, then the popular press reports it and trust in Apple’s business likely erodes; consumers are more apt to abandon Apple products in search of those which offer either better security, or at least a more cogent illusion of Security. Therefore, it is patently not in Apple’s interest to write such a master key software program. For the FBI, meanwhile, it was truly never in their interests to make the evening news. Period. Wargaming this out to its most likely conclusion, were Apple to acquiesce and in turn lose market share, whether slowly or in droves, then both would lose. This is because the FBI would most certainly face a hydra of small start-ups which on their own threatened Apple’s market share exactly by filling the security gap left by the kowtowed tech giant. Imagine such a startup’s corporate mythology and credo – offered first on their website, and Instagram, and Kickstarter, but then repeated by gizmodo.com, Popular Mechanics and the like: “in the wake of Snowden and then Apple’s compromise by the FBI, we [insert catchy startup name here] started with the premise that privacy was nonnegotiable, and that for Web 3.0, irreducible trust was a must …”. After the fall of the Pax Macintoshia, every new insurgent start-up would be free to offer consumers any diverse, idiosyncratic variation on security and encryption it wanted. Instead of the FBI needing one master key to unlock the software of a singular tech leader with immense market share, it would rather have to compel countless, small technology companies to similarly toe the line across wide, diverse variations on coding methodology. If current events play out as predicted here, then there will most assuredly be more than one future, small tech start-up that sells itself as “the tech firm Big Government can’t crack” – their business model revolving around not toeing the line, nor giving up a master key that circumvents their own security features – not falling prey to the Apple-FBI conundrum. This fracturing of security régimes won’t benefit Apple or its investors now, nor ever; it won’t benefit the Federal Government’s tax collection on Apple’s corporate (diminishing) earnings; and it certainly won’t play well to the FBI’s interests. Good intentions aside on both sides of the debate aisle, when the Apple vs. FBI boxing match reaches its conclusion, the Silicon Valley darling may at least still have room to maneuver, innovate, and vie for the title of World’s Most Valuable Company while dispatching those small start-up challengers and improving on its encryption craft all the while; in contrast, the FBI will be no more advanced in its criminal investigative capabilities, will have a publicly-visible black eye, and will have burned a bridge with a major trendsetter in silicon valley. And it will have no one to blame but itself.