If you have not yet read Tim Cook’s letter from earlier this week, do so now. Apple’s public stance on this issue is very respectable and representative of the immense social impact that technology giants can have on our culture, for better or worse. This situation might finally bring the security vs. privacy, law enforcement vs. liberty debate to a head in the United States. A piece I read this morning, though, shed light on another perhaps greater impact that an FBI “win” could have.
I, like any decent U.S. citizen, would like for justice in the San Bernardino shooting case. I mourn the loss of 14 innocent lives in the best way I know how from afar. Discovering the truth and executing justice is critical to comfort the surviving family and friends and to dissuade future attacks. However, the FBI’s ask of Apple to build a new version of iOS to allow for backdoor access to data on a confiscated iPhone does set “a dangerous precedent.” The government and all organizations, for that matter, have an increasingly poor track record with data security. If a backdoor is technically enabled, what could prevent that access from being utilized again in the future by bad actors inside or outside of the government?
Furthermore, I came across an update by ProtonMail, an end-to-end encrypted email provider in Switzerland, this morning that made me realize a deeper implication of this case. In their memo on a day scheduled for a major release of their software they stated:
Even though ProtonMail is a Swiss company, Apple is a US corporation, so all apps provided through the app store must comply with US encryption export restrictions. This leads us to the surreal situation where software from a Swiss company needs US government approval to be distributed.
In this global economy, the decisions and policies made by major U.S. technology firms, by choice or by force, have a profound impact on developers and consumers globally. Since Apple and Google control the distribution platforms for the wide-reaching iOS and Android platforms, privacy-focused creators in privacy-respecting countries abroad could still have their encrypted products thwarted by a big-brother U.S. government. Encrypted communication will never be impossible, save for maybe a global and permanent EMP of some sort. An increasingly common surveillance state could make the barrier of entry to such tools too difficult for the ordinary citizen, while terrorists and criminals with the resources can still communicate privately with relative ease.