If Apple Lose, We All Lose

“The most dangerous people with technology, are those who know more than a little and less than a lot; just enough to do some serious damage by oversimplifying things.”

The above is not actually a direct quote, but a sentiment shared by the best IT managers I've worked with. We who have worked in the trenches of IT Support, recognise that one of the biggest frustrations is having to explain to someone who thinks they know better, why they don’t, without ticking them off.

Now of course with the speed at which we've advanced and continue to advance in technology, and the fact that you want everyone from 3-year-olds to 80-year-olds to get it, it has become necessary to oversimplify some concepts; so we might say that a colouring app on a tablet (like the iPad) is a magic piece of paper; or we might say a search engine (such as Google’s) is like a Yellow Pages for websites; or we explain that sending a Whatsapp message is like sending a text to anyone, anywhere in the world for “free”. I have had to use that last one for customers at work, and even my own family. And you know what, for the most part, these oversimplifications are fine, harmless, because your only objective is to help a parent communicate more easily with their child who lives over 3,000 miles away, for example. Trouble comes however, when you try to apply the same principles to IT security involving mobile phones, their operating systems, and hacking.

When I first read about the case between the FBI and Apple, it seemed ridiculous to me that Apple should have to defend their stance. That is until I read the FBI’s reasoning. Then I understood at least one of their challenges — it was an educational one. The FBI’s reasoning is that they only want Apple to hack into ONE phone, not all phones. Which, when you oversimplify the iPhone’s operating system iOS and its Passcode, kinda makes sense — it’s like asking the maker of a lock to pick one lock, not all the locks they've ever made/installed. Simple, right? Except it’s not, because the “locks” were SPECIFICALLY engineered to not be able to be broken into, and to only be opened by the customer’s key. If the customer loses their key, tough, they can never enter their flat again. I say flat instead of house, and you’ll see why soon.

I think the reason some suits and non-techies think this request from the authorities is fair, is because they see each iPhone as a separate “detached” house. So millions of people all over the world each have their separate houses from Apple, and Apple can come round at any time and carry out work on an individual house without affecting others. Except it’s not really like that. All iPhones aren’t like separate houses, but more like flats in one (admittedly massive, global) building that Apple maintains. To help you feel extra secure in the house, Apple have access only to the main entrance of the building so that they can touch up the paint or replace a carpet in reception for example, but that’s where they stop. They made the locks to each flat in such a way that they can ONLY be opened with YOUR specific key. The metaphor begins to wear thin here because if you struggled to imagine a building that houses millions of flats, you may not be able to imagine a flat whose contents get destroyed/lost forever just because you lost your keys. But that is essentially what happens.

Furthermore, to ask Apple to introduce a “backdoor” into a phone, is like asking for rogue entry into the plumbing or electrical wiring of a flat, which is obviously connected to ALL the flats in this entire, massive, hypothetical building — you gain access to one, you can gain access to all. It is just a bad idea, and for the sake of mankind, I hope they are not made to do it.

The other issue I see is precedent. The law operates on it. Today it is one phone of a confirmed baddie. Tomorrow it’ll be several phones belonging to some confirmed baddies and their associates. Next year it’ll be some people who just “look dodgy”… I'm sure you’re getting the point. We human beings have a great track record of being horrible at handling great power. This won’t suddenly be any different. If the FBI wins, it won’t be just them, other law enforcement agencies will come along to “enforce the law”. Then it’ll be other tech companies that get ordered to hack into users’ phones, and they will be less inclined to resist, if the mighty Apple Inc. couldn't, or didn't. Privacy on technological devices will surely become a thing of the past. Some people think this is already happening slowly, and I for one wouldn't like the process to be sped up.

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