Forcing Apple to open doors to our digital homes would set a worrying precedent

February 23, 2016 by Daniel Prince, Lancaster University, The Conversation
Who’s got the keys to the door? Credit: ymgerman/shutterstock.com

Who controls what in the digital world? Apple is currently involved in a court face off with the FBI, and has refused to produce software that would help investigators to unlock the phone of San Bernardino gunman Syed Rizwan Farook. The clash is just the latest illustration of how important, as more and more of our lives are reduced to streams of data, access to that data has become.

The process by which Apple could help the FBI weaken the iPhone's access security is technically feasible. But rather than focus on the technical challenge, we should ask why the FBI has asked Apple to undermine these security mechanisms. The implication of a court judgement in the FBI's favour – with the precedent it would create – is that law enforcement and the state would gain the right to undermine the security we apply to our devices to access the enormous amount of personal information that we store on them.

Smartphones have become powerful pocket computers, stuffed with data revealing our thoughts and behaviour through records of our online browsing, our social activities, connections to friends and groups, interests and so on. A smartphone is more than a contact list, it provides an intimate portrait of its user. Just as the law affords an individual in their home a degree of privacy and security and protection, so it should treat our phones as digital "homes".

Following this line of reasoning, consider a smartphone like a serviced apartment. While it is where we "live" digitally, it is also maintained and supported by a third party whose services include the offer of protection from unauthorised entry.

Forcing Apple to open doors to our digital homes would set a worrying precedent
Will Apple be kicking open our digital doors? Credit: timsamoff, CC BY-ND

In the physical world, law enforcement may request the right to enter our real homes lawfully through obtaining a warrant. The physical act of gaining entry is rather trivial, it is the legal process that must be worked through first and is sometimes trickier to negotiate.

In the case of our digital homes, gaining access can be much more complicated and nuanced. Should the landlord of our digital homes – in this case Apple – be required to help force open the door?

If the internet has shown us anything, it's that technologies once invented can be quickly copied, altered and distributed. Look, for example, at the issues surrounding digital content and copyright infringement. It's no different in the cyber-security business: tools to break into software or digital devices are quickly replicated, modified and distributed once discovered.

The Stuxnet worm – weapons-grade software that attacked industrial control systems in an Iranian nuclear processing plant – turned up online six months later, with significant parts of the code freely available for anyone to use. The fear is that the same could happen here with the tool Apple would be required to create. Worse still, is that the tool could be used covertly to break into people's phones and leave no trace.

It comes down to a question of who we should trust to protect us and our digital lives. Traditionally, the role of government was to protect its civil population, and yet in this case it would seem that a global tech corporation is acting as the defender of our civil liberties.

Does society believe there are appropriate legal protections in place that will provide a balance for against police and investigators' demands? In the wake of the Snowden revelations among others, it's fair to say that western societies are questioning whether the current protections are strong enough, and if the legal framework has fallen far behind the pace of technological change.

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12 comments

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rderkis
1 / 5 (2) Feb 23, 2016
Quote "It comes down to a question of who we should trust to protect us and our digital lives. "

The day will never come when I trust Samsung more than the U.S. government to protect my children and other loved ones! While my children's digital lives are important, their physical lives are much much more so.
Does Samsung really think I am dumb enough to believe the are so altruistic that their sole reason for refusing to unlock the cell phone is to protect us? Just Samsung saying "Trust me" it is enough to make me distrust them.
rderkis
5 / 5 (1) Feb 23, 2016
I am embarrassed I said Samsung when I meant Apple. I guess that is part of being 69. :-)
gkam
1.5 / 5 (4) Feb 23, 2016
rderkis, it cuts both ways. Government is what we have between us and the Bad Guys, but what happens when the Bad Guys get into government? In the Bush Years, I was drafted onto a Federal Criminal Grand Jury for 24 months, and now do not trust my Department of Justice, I fear them.
gkam
1 / 5 (4) Feb 23, 2016
post/post
LED Guy
4 / 5 (1) Feb 23, 2016
rderkis, ah yes, trust the government that secretly collected petabytes of digital data on everyone (including countries we call our allies) for years. We probably still wouldn't know about it if Snowden hadn't blow the whistle on the program . . .

Collecting data on everyone and justifying it after the fact by saying it helped find/convict the guilty is a slippery slope. What happens when the laws change and data is used retroactively?
rderkis
not rated yet Feb 23, 2016
Quote gkam "I was drafted onto a Federal Criminal Grand Jury for 24 months"

gkam, when I was 18, I was drafted by the federal government for 24 months and sent to a hell hole called Vietnam.
Till you have spent a few years in a non democratic third world country, you don't know what a privilege it is to live here. I am on a small fixed social security income and still get two hot showers a day, all the food I want to eat and plenty of Xbox entertainment. I am always warm and have a sound roof over my head. After seeing several other countrys, I would have gladly given twice that amount of time to the draft, plus even now I would be willing to pay triple my taxes. I know there are people even in this country that are not as well off as me but I have to think most of them are better off than the people I saw over there.
Captain Stumpy
4.5 / 5 (2) Feb 23, 2016
Government is what we have between us and the Bad Guys
@benni-kam
no, that would be LAW ENFORCEMENT...

.

Eikka
3 / 5 (1) Feb 23, 2016
The fear is that the same could happen here with the tool Apple would be required to create. Worse still, is that the tool could be used covertly to break into people's phones and leave no trace


Technically speaking, they already have those tools.

As far as I know, Apple can reset a phone's password remotely.
24volts
4 / 5 (1) Feb 24, 2016
The fear is that the same could happen here with the tool Apple would be required to create. Worse still, is that the tool could be used covertly to break into people's phones and leave no trace


Technically speaking, they already have those tools.

As far as I know, Apple can reset a phone's password remotely.


No they can't and what the gov want's them to do it technically rewrite their operating system to bypass the password try limit and how fast the passwords can be entered. They also want them to enable a cable password feed. Once that's done it won't be long before that software is everywhere. The gov would still have to use brute force password guessing but anyone can do that if they can get your phone and that software.
rp142
not rated yet Feb 24, 2016


No they can't and what the gov want's them to do it technically rewrite their operating system to bypass the password try limit and how fast the passwords can be entered. They also want them to enable a cable password feed. Once that's done it won't be long before that software is everywhere. The gov would still have to use brute force password guessing but anyone can do that if they can get your phone and that software.


Good motivation for people to stop using weak passwords. There are many systems now that are open to brute force attacks and the risk drops rapidly with increasing password length. Stupidly short unlock codes, with only numbers, are just begging to be hacked.

A long alphanumeric password can be easy to remember and difficult to brute force. Methods like taking the first letter of each word in a poem, phrase, prayer, etc., and throwing in some numbers, are easy enough. My is strongest password was 32 characters.
Whydening Gyre
5 / 5 (2) Feb 24, 2016
Quote "It comes down to a question of who we should trust to protect us and our digital lives. "

The day will never come when I trust Samsung more than the U.S. government to protect my children and other loved ones! While my children's digital lives are important, their physical lives are much much more so.
Does Samsung really think I am dumb enough to believe the are so altruistic that their sole reason for refusing to unlock the cell phone is to protect us? Just Samsung saying "Trust me" it is enough to make me distrust them.

"The most feared words in the English lanquage - Trust us, We're with the Government and we're here to help." Courtesy of Ronald Reagan...
Whydening Gyre
5 / 5 (1) Feb 25, 2016
Actually, I'm waiting for someone to hack my stuff, see how bad off my debt picture is, feel sorry for me and and - pay it off.
Maybe even through in a few extra bucks for a nice vacation...

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