The Information Asymmetry of Digital Triage

Or, In The Battle of FBI v Apple, America Has Decided The FBI Is Right, Without Understanding What the FBI, or Apple, are saying.

There is an update to this story, which I will place at the bottom.

After a horrific accident, your loved-one is lying on a hospital bed, connected to a panoply of gadgets. They will need emergency surgery. The ER doc comes out and talks to you, pulling off his surgical mask, from behind which a stream of jargon-packed jibberish lurches forth, after which he looks at you expectantly: “Do you consent?”

The quizzical feeling you’ve got at that moment — I’ve been there — is the acme of informational asymmetry between physician and patient. You’re being asked to make a decision on something you’re patently unqualified to make.

This gets harder, but feels easier and better, because, hey! I’m a smart guy. I study stuff. This shouldn’t be this tough. And then, and this is the beauty part; and then, the same doctors who mock you when you research something yourself on the Internet — “Oh, did you figure out what’s wrong?” they ask, sarcastic tones honey-sweet, rich with the irony of you…you! figuring out something…hahaha — medical — these same doctors are the ones who now assure you that you! can! make! this! decision!

Well, these same doctors and their insurance carriers. No matter.

If you’re with me so far, you know this feeling. I mean, regardless of whether you’ve ever been in hospital, you know it: it’s the same decision most of us are being asked to make with respect to the Apple versus FBI case.

And we, America, we’ve decided…that the FBI is right. Apple is wrong!

That’s right, America has spoken, and it believes that in this case, which is as or even more obscure than any ER case with which any of us has ever been confronted, that it knows the answer.

Yes, America knows that it supports the FBI in this highly technical battle over arcane issues, and they know it right now, gosh darnit.

Never mind that almost all of you have not read the court order that began this debate. And that most people don’t understand encryption enough to secure a single email, let alone an entire device.

Never mind that 120 nationally recognized cyber-security experts (myself included among them) voted in a national newspaper that the FBI was wrong in this case; a call echoed and amplified by (God, I hate saying this but it is true) encryption expert Bruce Schneier in The Washington Post, and hacker-bad-ass, Marine-Corps-veteran, and really smart cyber guy Dave Kennedy on several networks (some of them simultaneously) and in print; and never mind the words of Nicholas Weaver, senior staff researcher focusing on computer security at the International Computer Science Institute in Berkeley, California, who wrote in the LawFare blog that, “The request seems benign but the precedent catastrophic.

I’m not even going to bother going in to the technical issues — America is — you are not — listening.

America is Ginger in the old Far Side cartoon: blah blah blah back door, blah blah blah update, blah blah blah “FBI Ordered the county to re-set the iCloud” blah blah blah.

No, people are choosing to side with the FBI even though, as Brian Krebs points out in his excellent primer on the subject, much of these orders and others like it in the past rest on the All Writs Act of 1789.

To save you some Googling, let me break the news: there was hardly any cyber-crime in 1789.

So why are people siding with the FBI? Because terrorism.

That’s right. A majority of experts in stuff that makes you want to die rather than learn it are telling you that letting the FBI have its way here has dire consequences for your privacy, and you’re like, “But…Terrorism.”

Which is why this was a great job of PR by the FBI, which found a case that was perfect for its purposes of gaining a back-door to America’s mobile computing platforms: the case was (a) not exigent (the criminals are already dead as a box of hammers); (b) not even that important (the FBI has phone records — oh, wait! I saw those on Brooklyn 99! — that answer all but the most boring of the questions they tell the public they seek answers to — such as, who did Farook call, and were they other terrorists? Did Farook call his co-workers? and other questions so clearly answered by phone records that I have to stop and wonder whether any of you was actually paying attention when you were yelling about the government monitoring telephone metadata just two short years ago or did you forget? You DID, didn’t you?!) and (c), and this is most important, it is tied to terror.

So you have to support them. Because terrorism.

And here’s the best part — this information asymmetry I spoke of? It’s worse here. Because, in the hospital, you only don’t know what the doctors are talking about. But in this case, you don’t know what the information security experts are talking about, and you also don’t know what the FBI and the government are talking about.

So basically, America, you’ve made up your mind, knowing nothing of either side.

On to incessant following of the Trump campaign!

Update: February 24. A new poll from Reuters shows modest support for Apple’s position. Perhaps this is a result of the news that, despite a blog post from FBI Director James B. Comey that the FBI’s move against Apple was not to set any kind of precedent, and that it was for this one phone only, it turned out that there were heaps of cases in which the Department of Justice was waiting for similar rulings against other phones.

One of Apple’s attorneys, Zwillgen PLLC, put out a PDF in which they showed a number of these cases.

It could also be the news that other law enforcement agencies are attempting the same thing, notably the New York County District Attorney’s office.

In any event, the Reuters poll shows that, overall, 46% of Americans support Apple’s decision.

Then again, the same number of Americans — including, weirdly, 46% of “Ashcroft Is Un-American” Democrats and 52% of “small-government” Republicans — believe that “the government should be able to look at the data on Americans’ smart phones in order to protect against terror threats.”

Which is truly bizarre. I seem to recall literal marching in the streets against the USA PATRIOT ACT provisions that afforded government less intrusive powers. And I of course recall the outrage and shouting and screaming over the revelations that the NSA was viewing call data records that provided the government with metadata about calls made by Americans — to, from, date, time, duration. Oh, the howls of protest. And here now are Americans saying, “Nah, it’s cool.”

Because Terror.