Human Rights

Are We Really Supposed to Believe That Apple's Spat Against the Govt Is a Fight to Protect the Freedom of American Citizens?

Salon speaks to tech critic Douglas Rushkoff about the complexity of the Apple privacy case.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com

Over the last few days, a debate has raged about the responsibility of a corporation to national security: Should Apple concede to a federal court order and unlock the phone of San Bernardino mass shooter Syed Farook, which might reveal useful information about the massacre and the Farook’s network?

Donald Trump thinks Apple should unlock the phone. (This would require Apple to “bypass or disable” a security feature that wipes out data after 10 bad password attempts.) Others – including many liberals, civil libertarians, and tech enthusiasts — shudder at the idea of the government cracking into a private device, even one carried by a killer.

Apple, which has opened locked phones in the past, has refused here. “We feel we must speak up in the face of what we see as an overreach by the U.S. government,” Apple chief Tim Cook wrote in a letter to customers. “Ultimately, we fear that this demand would undermine the very freedoms and liberty is meant to protect.” It’s not hard to hear echoes of the much-hated Patriot Act in lines like this, or to recall the debate around the NSA’s use of metadata. To a lot of people, Cook is a hero for standing up to the U.S. government.

Douglas Rushkoff is a media critic and technology skeptic whose book, “Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus,” comes out next month. Rushkoff, who spoke to Salon while traveling, sees the issue as morally complicated. The interview has been edited for clarity.

So the FBI wants Apple to unlock the phone of Syed Farook… Does that seem ethically reasonable?

It’s one thing if the government says, “We want you to design future phones so this won’t happen again.” That’s one way of looking at it. But that’s not what they’re asking in this case. They’re saying, “We want you to reveal that the promise you made about this phone turns out not to be true.”

The time to do something about this would have been when they released this phone… The FBI should have done a cease-and-desist lawsuit, or whatever. And then when they won the court order or whatever, automatically disabled the phones…

Yes – the FBI wants apple to “bypass or disable” the function that would normally clear all the date from the phone after bad attempts at passwords.

So the interesting thing about this is that a technology basically invented to decrypt Nazi messages has again become a means of encryption in wartime. Weapons and encryption are really the two main tools of war. Encryption is basically what keeps nuclear bombs from being blown up by some enemy. It’s what keeps your armory safe.

If we think of this as a war – a War on Terror, say – is there anything the FBI could find by doing this that would improve national security? Is there a justification for the FBI’s position?

Well surely, being able to see and hear everything that everybody is seeing and hearing makes you safer in the short term. It would be hard to argue against that. It would be whether it makes us more resilient in the long term.

I tend toward an open society, where there are not all of these holdings of secrets… If everybody knows everything about everyone, we would kind of get into a beautiful utopian place.

This is a hard one to parse. Apple staked out its position back when it sold its product. So Apple has to defend its position.

Meanwhile, the FBI should have made this challenge earlier than now. They have to take this stance. But they’ve so tarnished their position with all the NSA snooping.

Does it come down to this: Who are you more afraid of, the tech companies or the U.S. government? If Apple wins this, it gives Apple a very public moral victory – Apple wins a lot of soft power.

It would be a mistake for people to think of this as “The People” against government security. That’s a ruse. Really, it’s the world’s biggest corporation versus the world’s most powerful military. That’s what we’re looking at. And while I do believe that we people should defend our right to privacy, I don’t see the individual’s right to military-grade encryption. I see Visa companies, or Bank of America’s need to use it on my behalf, if Chinese hackers are using it to buy condoms on my Visa card…

For me to have something that the full focused attention of the Pentagon – which I’m sure is involved – and the FBI… To have something that they can’t break into… Imagine a real-world metaphor for that. “Oh, you’ve got a lock in your house that’s so powerful that if they brought the freakin’ army, and tanks, they couldn’t get in?”

It seems to me it’s an absurd level of protection. And that the protection is being instituted at the wrong place in the equation. What protects my house from cops is the law – not my locks. Because they’re just gonna have bigger shit than we do.

Millions of Americans have something the FBI can’t crack into.

The other problem is that even if Apple caves – if the FBI puts a gun to Tim Cook’s head and makes him type the code in… If this is real, can’t anyone do this? Can’t I install it on my Android phone? It’s not Apple-centric.

I wonder if there are international implications here? If we agree that Apple should do this, for the sake of national security, what about Saudi Arabia asking Apple to do something similar? China?

I guess they would… But those are basically fascist repressive regimes…

But where does Apple draw the line? If Apple does this for the U.S. government, does it do it for all governments?

And is Apple American?

It’s a tricky one. My instinct is that first, there’s not going to be anything valuable on the phone anyway.

And you can use burners, and God knows what. If you can’t have a private cell phone with encryption beyond the [reach] of a court order, people just won’t use them. It’s easy – you go to 7/11, get one of those, and chuck it. It’s more expensive, I guess.

So it’ll change the way criminals use their cell phones?

I guess – but is that all we’re talking about? Whatever happens in this case, it won’t be the same afterwards.

And if nothing else, the anxiety we pay for this is the price we pay for that over-the-top NSA snooping. This is the other shoe of that one dropping.

That’s why a lot of people not planning to blow up buildings are worried about this case. They’re been waiting for the U.S. government to do something like this.

And I bet the crazy radio conspiracy theorists are saying the government set up all of it – to justify this moment.

There you go – they waged the attack …

There’s no easy answer in it. It’s hard for me to speak against our right to privacy. But something does strike me as incomplete or temporary about a network in which my right to privacy is enforced on the level of my handheld device being impenetrable to a multi-trillion-dollar agency. Something seems out of balance in that one.

Scott Timberg is a staff writer for Salon. He runs the blog Culture Crash, and is the author of the book "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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