What's At Stake In Apple/FBI Fight: Who Gets To Set The Rules That Govern Your Privacy & Security

from the this-is-important dept

Lots of people, mainly those supporting the DOJ/FBI's view of the Apple fight, have been arguing that this isn't a big deal. They're just asking for one small thing. Other people have tried to examine "what's at stake" in the case, with a number of the arguments falling into the typical "privacy v. security" framing, or even something around precedents related to privacy and security. However, Jennifer Granick recently wrote a great piece that does a much better job framing what's truly at stake. It's not privacy vs. security at all, but rather who gets to set the rules over how software works in an era where software controls everything.

We live in a software-defined world. In 2000, Lawrence Lessig wrote that Code is Law — the software and hardware that comprise cyberspace are powerful regulators that can either protect or threaten liberty. A few years ago, Mark Andreessen wrote that software was eating the world, pointing to a trend that is hockey sticking today. Software is redefining everything, even national defense. But, software is written by humans. Increasingly, our reality will obey the rules encoded in software, not of Newtonian physics. Software defines what we can do and what can be done to us. It protects our privacy and ensures security, or not. Software design can be liberty-friendly or tyranny-friendly.

This battle is over who gets to control software, and thus the basic rules of the world we live in. Who will write the proverbial laws of physics in the digital world? Is it the FBI and DOJ? Is it the US Congress? Is it private industry? Or is it going to be individuals around the world making choices that will empower us to protect ourselves — for better or for worse?

That's a big question -- and it's not necessarily one that should be decided by a magistrate judge, making use of a law from the 18th century.
The big question then becomes: Are people going to be forced to live in a surveillance-friendly world? Or will the public be able to choose products — phones, computers, apps — that keep our private information, conversations, and thoughts secure?

Right now, the FBI wants to decide these questions with reference to a law that was originally passed in 1789. The All Writs Act allows courts to “issue all writs necessary or appropriate in aid of their respective jurisdictions and agreeable to the usages and principles of law.” Obviously, Congress wasn’t considering iPhone security at the time. The AWA has no internal limits and provides no guidance for courts on how to weigh individual privacy interests with corporate liberty and business interests with public safety interests. It is an utterly inappropriate vehicle for compelling forensic assistance.
And if the DOJ wins this case, it's pretty clear where this goes:

If the All Writs Act can be used in this way — to force a company to develop forensic software that the government wants to deploy in a single case of terrorism — it could be used in any number of other (currently unforeseen) circumstances.

In other words, design mandates will be next. In fact, maybe it’s already happening behind our backs. When the Snowden documents showed that Microsoft had created surveillance backdoors in Skype, Outlook.com, and Hotmail, the company issued a statement. It said:

Finally when we upgrade or update products legal obligations may in some circumstances require that we maintain the ability to provide information in response to a law enforcement or national security request. There are aspects of this debate that we wish we were able to discuss more freely. That’s why we’ve argued for additional transparency that would help everyone understand and debate these important issues.

At the Center for Internet and Society, we’ve been trying to figure out what those legal obligations are. I wonder if these AWA arguments are part of it.

To make sound policy in this space, the public needs to know what the government is forcing companies to do, the full picture. This San Bernardino case is just one salvo in the ongoing war between a surveillance-friendly world and a surveillance-resistant world. The stakes for liberty, security, and privacy — for control over our software-defined world — are high.

This is not about one phone. It's not about one case. It's not just about encryption. It's about how we work as a society and who gets to set the rules. That's kind of a big deal.
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Filed Under: fbi, government, jennifer granick, people, privacy, rules, security, technology
Companies: apple

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  1. icon
    John Fenderson (profile), 25 Feb 2016 @ 7:32am

    Re: Re:

    I think this is a new battle in a rather old war. There was a cease-fire in that war for a few years so people forgot, but I'm hearing nothing, on any side of the issue, that I didn't hear during the last crypowar.

    And before the last cryptowar, nearly identical issues and arguments were had over the telephone, the telegraph, the mail system, etc. etc. etc.

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