Almost a week after the FBI has dropped its suit against Apple to compel them to help them into the phone, and the dust is finally starting to settle on the showdown. So maybe now’s the time to reignite the crypto wars.
The fight of Apple vs. FBI lasted weeks, dragging every cybersecurity buzzword and hot button political fear into its wake. Now that this specific fight is over, and everyone’s got a little bit of egg on their face, it’s time to start really talking about the battle of encryption.
The one thing we can all seem to agree on is that for both sides this was never really about just one phone. For Apple the battle meant developing a backdoor that could be exploited again on any phone or Apple product around the world. In their book, encryption is the most important thing—which, though they weren’t excited for a lengthy and costly court battle, means the FBI’s alternate means is a double-edged sword. It comes amidst the agency getting some pretty resoundingly negative press, but the action that also means there is a way to hack one of Apple’s phones.
It’s not that the ability was wholly impossible—as the saying goes, the only secure computer is one that’s unplugged, locked in a safe, and buried 20 feet underground—but given that the company has built and prided itself on security, it doesn’t look great that the FBI managed to crack it with a team of hackers.
The FBI, meanwhile, wanted to pick a fight about unlocking a phone that they could win. As Slate notes, if it wasn’t about that rhetoric and bigger “crypto war” navigating the change of decades of cooperation between telecom companies and law enforcement running up against new advancements of encryption, they could’ve just asked the NSA to do it. That they didn’t, according to Slate, stakes out a bigger agenda:
For the past six months, the bureau—in fact, the Obama administration—had been seeking a test case that it could very likely win, and officials thought they had one in the case to compel Apple to open up Syed Farook’s iPhone 5C. There were no Fourth Amendment issues; the phone belonged to Farook’s employer, which had consented to government inspection. There were no privacy issues; Farook was dead and thus had no privacy rights. The political optics were as favorable as they come. Farook was no petty criminal; he was a mass murderer with connections to ISIS.
And since Apple had historically complied when asked to help, they may not have been expecting much pushback on this one. But then, as we know, both sides were ready to amp up the rhetoric to back themselves up once they got to the table. And so Apple took a public stand, and the FBI followed suit.
Until this past Monday, when the FBI dropped their suit, after enlisting outside help to break into the phone without Apple.
In the days since, opinions over who’s right have quieted into facts of what happened. Pundits and supporters on both sides have started looking at where this decision left this. Though this was a major chapter in the crypto war saga, it’s not the final chapter. Tech companies and security analysts will continue to face off with FBI and other law enforcement agencies about where the lines for encryption and access should fall. And now is the perfect time to really talk about that.
Gone is any sort of time-sensitive or high-stakes demand; there are no more MacGuffins or mascots that each side can throw their weight behind. Now we know better what’s going on at the FBI when faced with encryption. We’ll be able to apply that to future (or current) court cases. We’ve had years to digest the NSA’s surveillance program, and as Obama’s presidency winds down and encryption prevalence ramps up, it’s a rare time when the discussion could be less media white-noise and more serious discussion of the implications of encryption policies. The San Bernardino shooter’s phone raised the stakes to the public’s periphery, but the “stakes” of the situation created for some serious partisanship. Now that the phone isn’t a problem anymore, we can start decrypting the substance around the real debate here.