This week there were two big moments for privacy. First, was a ruling by a court that Apple had to unlock in some manner, call it decrypt or creating a backdoor into this specific phone. Second, was the fact that Apple, and now Google, has given the state a big middle finger saying “No!” These are important because of the gravity of both of these. The FBI is using “The All Writs Act” something from the 18th century and definitely not written to support dealing with difficult technological issues on technology that would appear to be magic to the author’s of the act. This is definitely stretching this law to its limits and likely beyond what is realistic, but it sets a precedence which is dangerous. The second part is important as both of these companies have been working with the government to provide data to them in the past.
While both of these companies are standing up to the government is great, it’s not enough. With a limited number of powerful players, it’s only a matter of time before they lose to the government or be threatened in some way that will require them to play ball with the government. On the other hand, smaller companies won’t have the money to fight the government, so even if you want to support a smaller company with privacy as its core values, there is no guarantee that they will be able to follow through. Furthermore, if the government forces the company to re-write its operating system, like Apple effectively has to do, the company might go bankrupt. With a precedence set by the Apple decision, a small phone company like Silent Circle and their Blackphone, would be forced to capitulate unless they were able to show that this was unduly burdensome.
The other issues with this case is that businesses are only fighting for what is “right” here because it will help them improve their bottom line. Of course, they are also fighting for their own personal privacy as an employee of the company and consumer of its products, but the goal is to improve profitability. Across the world it has been shown that privacy and protection from agencies like the NSA (US) and GCHQ (UK) is something that people are willing to pay for. Apple learned this from Blackberry during the Arab Spring – they emulated the encryption of the Blackberry Messenger with their iMessage application. This help transition some of the last hold-outs to Apple and eventually spurred other similar apps.
I believe it is likely that the Electric Frontier Foundation will be a strong advocate for Apple, so if you want to support Apple in their battle with the government I recommend donating to the EFF, especially if you don’t support Apple for its other business practices. I know I will.