It certainly wasn’t how you imagine a bank robbery to be. There were no men with sawn-off shotguns or screaming cashiers lunging for panic buttons. It all happened so peacefully and invisibly that I would never have noticed had I not been logging into my bank account online last month, only to find that nothing worked. Shortly afterwards, HSBC confirmed it had been forced to defend its systems from a criminal attack.
Nothing seems to have been stolen, so perhaps it was just hackers messing around. But increasingly, this is how bank robberies happen. Why spend weeks tunnelling into vaults or planning intricate getaways when organised criminals can steal millions just by getting some whizz kid to move numbers around on a screen? If you were remaking The Italian Job now, you wouldn’t need a fleet of Minis, just a roomful of laptops with geeks hunched over them.
When everything we value began to move online, in retrospect it was obvious that crime would follow. But nobody wanted to think too hard about that, which is how we all got suckered – step by trusting step – into carrying our whole lives on our phones.
Once upon a time, your phone was just your phone. Then it became your watch, camera, satnav, to-do list and diary (the snooping mothers of teenagers I know don’t bother searching bedroom drawers for an old-fashioned paper journal now, pouncing instead on any electronic device left carelessly unlocked).
Phones are almost a second external brain, an overspill reservoir for thoughts that would never (and perhaps should never) otherwise have been voiced. All those secret questions asked of the internet late at night: is this normal? Is this legal? Anyone know a good divorce lawyer? To read someone’s searches is the next best thing to reading their minds.
No wonder millennials refuse to have their smartphones prised from their hands, and middle-aged hearts beat faster when we absentmindedly mislay the damn thing. It’s not just the risk of missing a call. Our entire lives are soldered into a stupid hunk of metal.
The next step is for your phone to become your credit card and medical record – the newer ones automatically register steps taken while chummily inviting you to enter blood pressure or BMI details. That gimmicky “use your fingerprint to unlock it” thingummy on new iPhones isn’t actually a gimmick at all, but a biometric marker that confirms your identity to the bank, more reliably than the signature on a cheque. Airline applications already turn a phone into a boarding pass: could it one day become your passport, too?
And so on and so on, until our phones become almost an extension of our bodies, so indispensable that nobody will ever want to be without one. Ker-ching, as the tech companies don’t quite come out and say in public.
And that is perhaps the unspoken backdrop to the current showdown between the FBI and Apple, caused by the latter’s refusal to help the former unlock an iPhone belonging to one of the perpetrators of the San Bernardino shootings.
Bereaved relatives are outraged, suspecting the phone may hold clues both to how Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik were radicalised and to whether anyone else was involved in planning an attack that killed 14 people. (The two shooters reportedly tried to destroy their phones beforehand, which certainly suggests they were afraid of leaving something incriminating.) There is talk of a boycott of Apple products in protest against what some Americans see as prioritising the rights of a dead criminal over those of the living; inevitably, not just the White House but several Republican presidential contenders have weighed into the row.
Yet Apple’s chief executive, Tim Cook, is standing firm despite a court order, refusing to override an encryption process that makes its newer products so secure that even Apple itself cannot get into them. And Google’s chief executive is publicly backing him up. Why?
It’s partly a civil liberties issue, of course, an important test of the state’s ability to pry into private electronic lives. Apple is being asked to write new software capable of disabling a security mechanism that currently prevents the FBI “brute-forcing” Farook’s phone (essentially bombarding the phone with thousands of possible password combinations at high speed, until you hit lucky and guess right). The White House insists it doesn’t want a “back door” into all phones, just a tool unique to Farook’s, but tech companies fear this is the thin end of the wedge – if not for use in the US then in other countries that may have scant regard for their citizens’ privacy.
But there’s a hardnosed commercial element to Apple’s case too, which is that it should not be made to dismantle a security system on which its customers’ trust depends. The Chinese wall Apple effectively built between itself and its customers’ data was there for a reason; you cannot accidentally lead criminals to something if you can’t find it yourself. There’s a lot less danger of an embittered or corrupt employee secretly flogging off access to customers’ data when they don’t actually have that access. But the minute Apple comes up with a way of picking its own locks, presumably every organised criminal gang in the world will be trying to get their hands on it. Imagine the backlash should they succeed.
The FBI may prevail in the courts, of course. But it’s hard to imagine tech companies rolling over easily, given how heavily invested they are in the inviolability of our phones. As, indeed, are the rest of us.
This should be a wakeup call, a timely reminder of the risks of putting all one’s electronic eggs in one basket. But it won’t be – any more than watching HSBC fend off hackers made me go back to keeping cash in a biscuit tin. There’s little chance of turning back the clock, unwinding the oddly needy relationship between human and phone.
Most of us will probably just carry on vaguely trusting in unknown corporate providers, hugging our phones close and thinking that keeps them safe. And only occasionally wondering whether, like naive tourists who stuff all their money and passports into a bumbag and are then shocked when a mugger makes straight for it, we have just conveniently collected all our valuables in the one place a criminal would look.