Thursday 25 February 2016

Apple Versus The FBI Shows That The Surveillance Lobby Will Break Any Business, by Loz Kaye

On the face of it, Apple's Tim Cook is a pretty unlikely radical hero.

He is the Chief Executive of a globally dominant company that produces shiny devices and wants a slice of everything that you do.

But Tim Cook's message to customers refusing to cooperate with the FBI in gaining access to one of their shiny devices, is one of the most significant personal acts of defiance of surveillance overreach since Snowden. 

 If you have not already had the news via one of Tim's shiny devices, the FBI has obtained a court order for Apple to hack an iPhone used by one of the San Bernadino shooting suspects.

Reasonable enough, many would say. However, it is the detail of what is being required that is deeply worrying. 

It is about ordering Apple to create a tool to eliminate security protections the company had built in to the phone software to protect customers from, well, amongst others, criminals and terrorists.

This really is not the equivalent of the police checking up on a criminal's phone records as we have seen 101 times on cop shows. 

As Cook puts it: “The government suggests this tool could only be used once, on one phone. But that's simply not true… The government is asking Apple to hack our own users and undermine decades of security advancements that protect our customers”. 

The entire thrust of the US law enforcement has been to suggest wanting encryption that actually works is suspicious and unpatriotic.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of reasons for needing access to secure communications, for both business and individuals.

After all, even the UK Ministry of Defence has released its app to access casualty administration and compassionate leave requests for service personnel for Apple devices.

No doubt the debate on the balance of intercept legal powers will continue to rage. Bill Gates has just weighed in on behalf of the FBI, with about as much authority as a confused Clippy.

What this court order has done is fundamentally to change the focus of that debate. 

Up to this point, the battle has been about the authorities on one side, civil liberties groups on the other, and communications services providers being expected to make sense of it all. 

Now every business is in the frame. What is at stake here is a product that Apple makes, and how it produces information. 

The FBI is willing to break into, and so break, a company's product. And try to break that company publicly, with a vigorous legal and media onslaught.

What the FBI is proposing has profound implications, not only for our privacy, but also for how we manufacture, and for how we do business.

Increasingly, all our things are making data: our car, our thermostat, our solar panels, even the fridge. If Apple can be forced into changing its product, then so can any manufacturer.

If Apple can be forced to act completely contrary to what it believes that its customers want, then so can any business. 

CEOs may think that the FBI is 100 per cent right in what they are doing, but they should still be worried even if they do not think of their business as directly “tech” related. 

This is not just an American debate. Cameron has also been thundering about about companies providing safe spaces for terrorists to communicate in, even while the Government has promised there is no intention of an encryption ban.

Proposed British surveillance legislation in the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill was criticised by the Science and Technology Select Committee for lack of clarity on the issue.

That lack of clarity opens the door to what is being proposed by the FBI, and to even more extreme measures than that, in the United Kingdom. A letter such as Tim Cook's would have been illegal under the terms of the Bill.

Many have pointed out that Apple's record on privacy is, at best, patchy. At the end of the day, their job is to sell phones, not to be the champion of civil liberties. That is as it should be.

But if businesses of any kind are to continue to innovate and protect their customers, then they will have to engage in this debate and be bold.

Cook has made the technological and customer service arguments. It is time for businesses to make the political ones.

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