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To most Americans, Apple’s refusal to unlock the San Bernadino shooter’s iPhone seems an untenable position. After all, Farook is a known terrorist who committed a horrific crime. That a legal warrant should be issued to search his every sock drawer and hard drive to uncover links to other terrorists or plots is patently obvious. Clearly Apple should just give the FBI what they want. So why is Apple balking? And why does most of the tech community side with them?
The facts are a bit confusing to those outside the tech community. The average American doesn’t (and probably doesn’t want to) understand the intricacies of data encryption and security. With that in mind, I’m going to try to make a more real-world analogy that everyone can relate to, but still illustrates the problem at hand. To do that, let’s assume that this is the 1960s. “Ivan” has just committed an act of terror in the name of the USSR. He was killed in the event, but police suspect he may have had microfilmed plans and lists of other Soviet agents inside the US.
The FBI discovers Ivan has a safety deposit box at the local bank. They go to the court and get a warrant, present it to the bank, and the bank manager opens the box inside the vault and surrenders the contents inside to the authorities.
This situation is similar to requests Apple has responded to many times before. It is a request for something Apple has possession of (e.g. iMessage conversations on its servers) which are turned over willingly with the proper legal authorization. This is how most people seem to be thinking of the Farook iPhone case, but it is not similar to the current case at all. For that, let’s move on to the next scenario.
Police then discover that Ivan has an ACME Self Destructing Safe in his basement. The feds know this safe is equipped with an acid release failsafe inside the unit such that if the wrong combination is tried too many times or they attempt to force open the safe, the acid is released and all contents of the safe are destroyed.
The FBI then goes to the ACME company and asks them to open the safe. But ACME explains that even they don’t have the combination. Only Ivan did, and he’s gone. ACME doesn’t own the safe or any of its contents. It just designed and built it. Then the FBI comes back to ACME with a new plan and a court order to make ACME implement it. They want ACME to build them a device that can neutralize the acid failsafe so that the police can then just crack the safe.
However, ACME is aware that this acid neutralizing device will actually work on any of their safes, not just Ivan’s. Further, they know their safes are the bane of the FBI, and that police have hundreds of these legally confiscated safes from other crimes stored in evidence lockers across the country. The FBI would love to open them all.
ACME is worried that eventually one of the neutralizing devices or the plans for one will get out in the public or on the black market, and once that horse is out of the barn, there’s no putting it back. They realize that what the FBI is asking them to do is effectively remove the acid failsafe as a security feature from everyone’s safe, not just Ivan’s. This compromises the safety of ACME’s many legitimate customers who have trusted them to secure their belongings.
Further, the security industry as a whole is worried that if ACME yields, it sets the precedent that no one can build and sell uncrackable safes or unbreakable locks. Every security system must be penetrable by the police without the owner’s cooperation. But such a built in weakness is also exploitable for nefarious purposes, both by corrupt government agents as well as theives and spies.
This is the situation Apple finds itself in with the locked iPhone. Once it builds the crack tool, there is no reality under which it would be used just once and destroyed. Even if that tool was safely destroyed, the FBI would be back next week with another warrant for another iPhone, and they would be forced to build it again. Eventually, it becomes impractical to destroy and rebuild the tool each time, so the issue becomes about controlling access to the tool.
Therein lies the weakness. In a world where horses don’t exist, no one has to worry about watching the barn door. But once you create a horse, then the door becomes a liability. And because horses are useful, eventually you have multiples… then multiple barns… and multiple doors. It’s only a matter of time before one gets loose. After all, no security system is perfect.
It’s this sort of thing that really pisses me off. The intention is exactly right. The Internet should be free of interference. It should continue to be accessible by anyone, empower content and service creators, and foster innovation. Yet excluding all government regulation of the Internet is exactly contrary to achieving that goal.
In fairness, the issue of Net Neutrality is a bit complicated. Most people don’t know how the Internet works. And this leaves open the opportunity to exploit that lack of understanding through politi-speak gems like this
“There are exceptions of course, but far too often, when you hear someone say, ‘We need regulations to protect the Internet,’ what they’re actually saying is they don’t really trust the entrepreneurs and Internet technologists to create the economic growth and to increase public welfare.”
Net Neutrality regulations don’t stifle entrepreneurs and technologists. Rather, they keep the network available for them. Net Neutrality reigns in big ISPs from exploiting their effective monopolies for increased profit and offering preferential treatment for other large companies who can afford to pay to play. It protects the consumer and the entrepreneur from big business.
In a very real way, keeping the government from regulating the Internet is simply paving the way for a few large private business to regulate it. There’s no way that ends well for small businesses and consumers.
All regulations are restricting someone else’s freedom. That doesn’t make them all bad. Net Neutrality regulations are all about preserving the freedom of the Internet. If you would rather trust AT&T, Time Warner, Verizon, and Comcast to keep your network a free and open egalitarian network… you’re more than a little naive.
The NSA debacle gets more weird by the minute. First, the NSA get “outed” for doing what pretty much everyone thought they were doing anyway. Government officials promptly and predictably lose their collective shit, because apparently they were the only ones in the dark.
Then the whistleblower/traitor outs himself as the highly skilled tech with the keys to the information kingdom who couldn’t live with his conscience any longer. Sounds noble. But he’s quickly unmasked as a man who by all accounts was dramatically unqualified for the position he apparently held. Okay, maybe he’s a tech savant of sorts. At this point I was still trying to give him the benefit of the doubt.
However, Snowden then starts giving interviews claiming the NSA has lots of capabilities, that to many of us in the technical community, just seem damned unlikely. Are they collecting data? Sure. Are they trying to analyze and mine it? Sure. But reconciling and normalizing zetabytes of heterogeneous data is damned hard, and most often yields digital gludge. Their data repository is likely way more plentiful than their information repository. Then along come companies like Google to start piling on, indicating how the NSA Prism program really works with them. And frankly, Google’s story is far more technically plausible than Snowden’s.
For added measure, Snowden’s latest interview asserts that the NSA isn’t just snooping on US citizens, but is actively hacking China’s networks as well. Ummm… duh. Does anybody really hope that’s not happening? Especially since they’re beating on our firewalls every day like a jockey on an indolent donkey? But what has this got to do with Fourth Amendment rights, the privacy of American citizens, or the overreach of government? Did he not understand the mission of the NSA when he took the job?
And finally, the boy genius is hiding out in Hong Kong, a place with an extradition policy so friendly to the U.S. that jaywalkers are frequently remanded to the States for unpaid tickets. This dude is no rocket surgeon.
So what gives? Why is this guy talking? And why is anyone listening?
Fair warning: what follows is pure unadulterated speculation. But someday I aspire to become a pundit on a network news channel, so I need the practice.
I think Snowden is the key operative in the NSA’s version of “The Corbomite Maneuver”. As you may recall, Corbomite was the substance Capt. Kirk claimed the enterprise was coated in. Kirk claimed Corbomite reflected any attack back on the attacker, and thus bluffed Balok into backing off despite his superior power.
I think Snowden is touting the powers of the NSA’s Corbomite. He’s a patsy—promoted beyond his capability, given access to staged capability, and indirectly urged to “blow the whistle”. He’s disclosing the capability the NSA wishes it had. Capability that would send our enemies into a technical paranoid frenzy. The goal? Forcing Al Qaeda to resort to old school postal mail and coded classified ads to communicate. Starting a cyber cold war with China by convincing them there would be technological Mutually Assured Destruction. This is a game of hacker-poker, and we just raised.
Either that, or Snowden’s an ego fueled blowhard. It’s hard to tell.
Matt Yglesias provides a delightful, yet long winded, romp through the history of the Star Trek franchise. It’s a must-read for any serious Trekkie. For the rest of you, suffice it to say that what made Star Trek great was its vision of a somewhat utopian future.
Trek envisioned a world not based on economics and acquisition of stuff, but a world where people were motivated by a desire to learn more, to better themselves. It was more about cooperation than competition.
This didn’t mean the Star Trek universe didn’t have its share of bad guys, but success was often about diplomacy and respect of alien culture. Blowing stuff up was a last resort. Granted, it wasn’t an uncommon last resort, but it wasn’t the primary point of the show.
Yglesias also observes that the new rebooted movie franchise, while great fun, has sort of lost this vision. It’s become more a series of sci-fi adventure flicks than the morality tales that defined the 5 TV series. It’s great popcorn entertainment, but it’s not really what Trek was all about. Yglesias blames this on the medium—that feature length films don’t lend themselves to the same type of storytelling as the small screen. Maybe he’s right.
All this got me to thinking about why I’ve always preferred Star Trek to Star Wars. While I’ve enjoyed the Star Wars movies, they simply aren’t as personally compelling to me. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson says for him it’s because Trek stays more true to science as we understand it. Phasers just seem hard to build, while light sabers seem to require different laws of physics. As a science geek myself, I like the bad science explanation, but I don’t think that’s it.
In the end it’s rather simple. The universe of Star Trek is a place I’d like to live. Star Wars? …not so much. And it’s not even that Star Wars is always centered on, well, wars… and frankly, war zones aren’t appealing places to live. But the overall culture is maybe too familiar. In some ways it’s too similar to the world we live in. Governments are corrupt. Power struggles and armed conflict are rampant. Everyone is constantly angling for an advantage. Thanks, I can turn on CNN and see that.
Yet in the Trek world, I can explore, learn, grow, and I still occasionally get to blow something up. It may still have dangers, but it’s an inviting and appealing culture. It emphasizes the best in humanity while recognizing that the worst still lurks.
It’s not clear this difference is because Star Wars was spawned from feature films rather than television. Each writer built their universe to suit their vision and the story they wanted to tell. Roddenberry was an optimist. He believed the best in people would always prevail and projected a future where it truly blossomed. Lucas was more of a realist. He reprojected the culture of man onto a different galaxy and gave them hyperdrives and blasters.
Bottom line: If the Enterprise (any of them, NX, NCC, A, B, C, D, E, or Q for that matter) drops into orbit and offers to take me on as a crewman, I’ll be texting Kim from space that I will be out of town for awhile. I will be boldly gone. Hell, I’ll even agree to wear a red shirt. But if the Millennium Falcon drops by, I may well go for a joy ride, but I’ll be home for dinner.