John Oliver, the host of Last Week Tonight on HBO, dedicated his most recent episode to exploring the controversial debate surrounding Apple and the FBI. In it, he summarizes the debate, offers his own opinion – with which I agree, and gives secure messaging apps a nice shout out, as well.
In case you haven’t been following the news, here’s a brief description of the Apple/ FBI controversy: On December 2 in San Bernardino, Syed Farooq successfully carried out a horrible terrorist attack, murdering 14 people and seriously injuring 22 — he was killed in a shootout with law enforcement. During the investigation, the FBI confiscated Farooq’s iPhone 5C; however, it’s locked, the FBI cannot figure out the passcode, and because the FBI tried entering too many incorrect passcodes, the iPhone is about to completely erase all the information stored on it. Naturally, the FBI turned to Apple for help, asking them to develop a software that would allow them to keep guessing the passcode. But, Apple denied the request. So, the FBI slapped Apple with a federal court order to comply — yet Apple still refuses to cooperate.
The Case for Encryption
Why, you might ask, is Apple fighting the FBI? John Oliver cites three reasons:
First, it’d set a dangerous precedent. If Apple helps the FBI this one time, who’s to say other law enforcement agencies wouldn’t ask again in the future? After all, according to Oliver, there are 100+ mobile devices waiting to be unlocked just in the state of New York.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, if Apple were to create “a backdoor to the iPhone,” which is purposely encrypted so heavily that even Apple itself can’t break in, then it’d be easier for cybercriminals to take advantage of the software. In a letter on February 16, Tim Cook wrote, “in the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession.” In other words, Apple can’t be sure that in enabling such access, they’d be able to keep the security of their customers absolutely safe in the future — it’d be like challenging cybercriminals to discover and exploit the software. “We believe it would be in the best interest of everyone to step back and consider the implications,” Cook continued.
Third, it might encourage China, Russia, and other authoritarian regimes to request similar access. Think, that today hundreds of innocent people in these countries are being jailed for “political dissent,” when really they’re just penning their thoughts on the Internet. If these governments, which notoriously use technologies to spy on their citizens, could legally break into iPhones, the consequences could be disastrous.
John Oliver’s Sobering Point: Secure Messaging
In the last few minutes of his segment, Oliver suggests that even if Apple were to help the FBI, “people who want encryption will always be able to find it.” He lists several secure messaging services, mentioning that there are hundreds and hundreds of encryption apps available for users to choose from – like TelegramSilent Phone, and Threema, for example.
Still, while these messaging applications are intended for individual use, it’s important to note that businesses, as well as individuals, require secure messaging, too. In December, the FBI requested that US companies stop encrypting their communications so that the FBI can continue to monitor communications. This, of course, is troubling to companies wishing to keep sensitive information secure from third-parties. Thus, in addition to the three secure messaging applications John Oliver mentioned, there are others that are intended for businesses not individuals, like Nuro Secure Messaging. It is especially designed to keep sensitive business information — which ranges from banking data to trade secrets — secure from anyone who wasn’t originally intended to see it, including cyber criminals and third parties.
John Oliver did a great job summarizing the current debate, explaining Tim Cook’s concerns, and convincing the public that mobile encryption is not to be taken lightly. I agree that if Apple were to comply with the FBI, the security of iPhones everywhere would be threatened — because once Apple develops that “backdoor” software, there’s no going back.