The battle Apple can’t win

A friend of mine, a person who understands very little about computers, and nothing about computer security, sent me the following message tonight:

Apple better comply. Bill gates agrees with the Feds that Apple should hand over data. There is a law suite against Apple coming. Tim Cook may go to jail for contempt. Getting serious.

Reading this makes my head hurt for several reasons, not the least of which being that I have no idea how to explain to this friend and everyone else like him why Apple is resisting the court order for them to comply with the FBI’s request. Most Americans just have no clue about computer security, so how are they supposed to understand the nuances of what the FBI is asking Apple to do, and why it is concerning to Apple and Tim Cook?

I don’t mean to speak pejoratively about my friend; most people don’t understand this stuff, nor should they necessarily be required to, although it would certainly be helpful if more people did.

One thing should be clear to everyone: Apple isn’t fighting the Feds for marketing purposes. Anyone who thinks that refusing to crack the phone of a person labeled a terrorist is a good look for any company just isn’t paying attention. That’s the visual the FBI has been trying like crazy to stick to Apple, and based on polls and my friend’s text message, it seems to be working.

The truth of the matter is that, while horrible like every other mass shooting in America, it seems to me that the San Bernardino case has more in common with workplace violence than it does with terrorism, for reasons well illustrated by the grugq here. Even if true, though, that is immaterial to the FBI’s own PR campaign. Apple is being tarred and then covered with a big bag of feathers labeled “friend to terrorists”, and even people who can’t begin to comprehend why rendering your own OS insecure is a bad idea can certainly form an opinion about that.

This was always going to be described as a terrorist attack because the husband and wife involved did try to contact and associate themselves with different terrorist organizations (they failed), and were Muslim. If the shooters had been some white supremacists, or a group of Bundy types who actually did something violent about their internalized hatred of the US government, it would probably just be labeled as the crazy antics of a bunch of loons. But that wasn’t the case.

And now that the FBI wants to set legal precedent with Apple, the San Bernardino office party shooting has definitely got to be labeled terrorism. Any other characterization won’t advance the goal of the US government — to get around smartphone encryption by any means necessary. If people actually thought this was just another case of deranged people in America shooting others for no apparent reason, it would give the FBI exactly zero leverage in the court of public opinion.

I know this, because America has voted with their actions after every domestic mass shooting: the gun is sacred, and no one cares enough just because a gun was used to mow down a few people. But terrorism! We’ve shown over and over that we’ll chuck civil liberties right out the window every time if terrorists are involved.

I’m not saying this cynically; I honestly believe Comey is portraying Apple as “protector of terrorists” for a very political reason.

Please understand: what happened on December 2nd, 2015 was terrible. I hate it. I hate all the mass shootings in the US over the many, many years that we’ve stood by and let them happen. I hate terrorism, regardless of who the perpetrators are, and I’ll openly state that some of our own country’s drone strikes seem to me to be bordering on terrorism, if not actually qualifying outright.

I don’t really care about Syed Rizwan Farook’s privacy at this point. I totally understand why the families of his victims would not care at all about the legal precedent that would be set by Apple fulfilling the FBI’s request in the manner they have requested it. If it were my loved ones that had been shot and killed, I almost certainly wouldn’t care either.

But, quite honestly, this legal battle is not about protecting the privacy or any legal rights of a terrorist. It’s about legally compelling a US company to weaken the security of its own products, which are sold and used around the world, and the really depressing ramifications of that for everyone who doesn’t want to get hacked or surveilled six ways to Christmas just because they use a smartphone.

I think Apple needs to frame this more as a security issue, and less as a privacy one, even though it is clearly both, and both are clearly important. No one cares about that privacy of terrorists or crazy gunmen in general, and I don’t see Apple managing to educate the average American on why the actual privacy aspects of this case matter. It’s possible they’d make a better case for their current position by emphasizing the legal and security problems with what the FBI wants.