Why Politicians Think an iPhone Backdoor is Essential

3 minute read
| Editorial

When government leaders, politicians, propose that Apple build a backdoor into the iPhone for law enforcement, we write off their idea as ill-informed. So why do they persist?

A perfect example is this article: “Australia’s Attorney General Thinks He can Convince Apple Encryption Back Doors are Good.” By now, you’d think that well-informed, intelligent government leaders would have given up on the idea of accessing any smartphone, even a with a warrant, via a backdoor. Instead, the desire seems to have spread from the U.S. and the U.K., infecting other western democracies.

Encryption backdoor

A backdoor into your iPhone is an incredibly bad idea. One that politicians seem to love.

I think the first reaction is to conclude, in about 10 seconds, that the politicians are just dumb. But that’s the same shoot-from-the-hip thinking that we criticize them for. Instead, I want to explore why government leaders feel so deeply, in a flawed way, about their agenda.

Counting the Reasons

Here’s what I think is going on.

1. There’s a lack of fundamental training and aptitude in technical decisions. Many of us in the tech sphere have had 20 or 30 years of experience in government, military or enterprise even before we started writing about it. We’ve seen it all. We have college degrees that launched a technical career, and we fit new data and experiences into a broad and deep framework. Politicians, except for a notable few, don’t have that benefit.

2. There’s a limited understanding by politicians of consequences due to lack of experience. This is based on #1 above. Technical people have seen big programs both succeed and fail. They’ve learned to spot the earmarks of doomed, politically driven, shallow thinking. It’s far easier to visualize the likely outcomes based on that experience. Politicians can’t do it.

3. Again, derived from #1 is the inability to “Absorb and integrate.” Politicians lack a rich technical decision matrix. When new information and imperatives arrive, they have no foundation to weigh them against. They have what I call a zeroth-order level of understanding. That results in forced, rash, rationalized decisions, which brings up the next item on the list.

4. The shoot-from-the-hip decision approach has the aura of high intelligence. That looks good politically. In fact, these kinds of decisions almost always fail when the issue is complex, as they tend to be in modern technology.

The Nobel Prize winning psychologist Dr. Danny Kahneman described this faulty decision process in: “Thinking Fast and Slow.” In that book, he describes how our species, through evolution, is beautifully designed for instant decision making. (Noise in the bushes! Run now or get eaten.) It’s a survival instinct that worked for millions of years, but fails in a modern, complex, technical society in which it’s hard to deeply analyze consequences.

5. There is political expediency in solid law enforcement. Western governments see a certain legitimacy in the legality of warrants to, without limits, pursue information that may lead to solving a crime. But there are those who argue that there must be limits placed on the powers of the government, in the spirit of the U.S. Constitution.

The debate is ongoing about where The People want the line drawn in the sand.

6. The effect of peer pressure. Most high-level leaders, in the enterprise, have chief scientists. It’s someone they can depend on for solid advice. Politicians, in general, see senior technologists and scientists as having opposing motives and can’t be trusted with important political decisions.

With some exceptions, there’s generally no trusted insider with whom they can sit down, on an individual basis, have lunch, and diagnose the technical nuances with both political and technical astuteness. (Even the Vatican has a staff of Ph.D. scientists, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, to advise the Catholic Church on scientific issues.)

So when politicians chat with like-minded colleagues, they must conclude that their closed fraternity is correct in its thinking. It’s never wise to be politically ostracized. That leads to a loss of influence and power.

Sometimes I think that The Abilene Paradox also plays a role.

As a result, many politicians must depend on their own inexperience in technical matters. There is precious little time to study and evaluate. Worse, competing inputs and voices seem, and often are, self-serving. There is no greybeard to confide in and from whom to seek sophisticated, trusted technical counsel.

Solid or Shaky Ground?

For all these reasons, politicians believe they’re on solid law enforcement ground when it comes to demanding backdoors into iPhones. An attempt to persuade them otherwise is simply seen as self-serving by either people with ulterior motives or profit-motivated companies like Apple.

All the above issues pose continuing problems that our western culture must discuss, diagnose, and come to terms with. A dialog between governance and those governed is crucial.

11 Comments Add a comment

  1. geoduck

    There’s a deeper factor at work: Modern Democracy itself.

    We have reached a stage where the Democratic process elects those that are very very good at running FOR office, not those who have any ability to function when IN office. You end up with reactionary pretty faces who can mouth great sounding platitudes, but have no idea how to make those reality. Worse they are very good at saying things for political points, and not thinking about the impact.

    We are being led by Political Savants. They are only good at one thing but are very VERY bad at everything else.

  2. Lee Dronick

    There are good people in office, not enough to be sure, but they are not all of the same mold.

  3. aardman

    Re #3 inability to “Absorb and Integrate”. I have a suspicion that with the amount of information and learning required these days to gain competence in any given field of study, our educational system, and maybe society in general, no longer values or nurtures the mental skill that I will call “integrative knowledge”. The ability to draw knowledge from disparate disciplines and form a coherent and well-informed integrated mental model of the world we live in. This includes the ability to take concepts and modes of thought from one discipline and relate and apply them to another discipline.

    What suffers most when people lack integrative knowledge is sound decision-making and good judgement, indispensable qualities of an effective leader. A hallmark of integrative knowledge is curiosity across a wide field of interest and the ability to talk intelligently (especially ask incisive questions) about pretty much any topic. Examples of people who I think have great integrative knowledge are Bill Clinton, Richard Feynman, Phil Jackson, and since this is an Apple forum, Steve Jobs.

  4. wab95


    This is a reasonable argument, reinforced by the reference to Danny Kahneman’s work.

    I would merely add that, apart from the reasons that you’ve cited, another driver beyond simply being seen to be doing something is the politicians’ life cycle. Most, in functional representative democratic societies, have a limited guaranteed window of time, and any extension on their tenure is dependent upon deliverables. They therefore are rewarded for quick, easy solutions that can be implemented during their time in office, rather than for solutions that, apart from being more appropriate to the problem, may require a longer time to apparent fruition.

    The tension between representative government, i.e. the most prevalent viewpoints and preferences, and short political lifespans can sometimes militate against the creation of working sustainable solutions of a purely political nature.

    Hence, the importance of professionals to develop and advocate for these solutions, educate the electorate, and collaborate with elected officials to make it so.

  5. aardman

    @wab95 “Hence, the importance of professionals to develop and advocate for these solutions, educate the electorate, and collaborate with elected officials to make it so.”

    This recommendation has been neutralized by certain politicians and political parties who have taken the tack of glorifying ignorance and denigrating learning and science. This is egalitarianism gone mad: “My opinion about climate change is just as competent and valid as a climate scientist’s opinion.” Or replace “climate change” and “climate scientist” with “the economy” and “chairman of the Fed”.

    Granted a lot of people have come to the conclusion that expert knowledge is bad for them because for decades now the brightest young men and women coming out of the best universities have been joining the beeline to Wall Street where they have been using their talents to dream up all sorts of schemes whose main purpose is to deceive people into pouring their life savings into securities that are far more risky (and less lucrative) than they appear.

  6. geoduck

    To continue that thought, I would contend that the best and the brightest have been hobbled by a pay to play educational system. If you know that to get a university degree you’ll leave with several hundred thousand dollars in debt, your options are limited. You almost HAVE to go into a field where you stand a good chance of making gobs of money, even if that is not where your interest and talents lie. As Noam Chomsky said:

    “Students who acquire large debts putting themselves through school are unlikely to think about changing society, Chomsky suggested. “When you trap people in a system of debt . they can’t afford the time to think.” Tuition fee increases are a “disciplinary technique,” and, by the time students graduate, they are not only loaded with debt, but have also internalized the “disciplinarian culture.” This makes them efficient components of the consumer economy.”

    So the west has systematically not only devalued and denigrated knowledge, it’s made the skills of critical thinking harder to get.

  7. John Martellaro

    geoduck: That’s a great observation by Noam Chomsky, and I agree with it. Thanks for sharing with us.

  8. wab95


    Point taken, particularly in the current US political climate in which, not only has science and expertise been derided as ‘elitism’, but often where those with professional expertise have oftentimes prostituted that profession for political gain and partisan advantage.

    However, based on my current working experience, I would not go so far as to say that it’s been wholly neutralised worldwide or even in the USA.

    Indeed, I am currently working in projects that involve partnerships between academia, the private sector (e.g. Pharma, funding agencies) and the public sector – specifically health ministry officials, to address longstanding and difficult challenges that some have dismissed as intractable. These problems are anything but.

    What has become apparent is the inability, for all of the reasons that John has cited above, for elected officials to develop technical solutions on their own, and most politicians (both elected and appointed) that I’ve worked with will concede that this is not their skill set. However, without active, funded and organised leadership, bringing stakeholders together to solve these problems, which are mainly multi and inter – sectoral, these problems don’t get solved.

    First, evidence-based solutions or at least modifiers must exist. (We have that in the tech sector.)

    Second, that knowledge and expertise base must be bent to the needs of the specific problem or ask at hand. You might be surprised at how often, outside of a research community, no one has thought to apply solution X to problem Y. This is often the nexus between academia and the private sector.

    Third, there has to be funding to apply this situation, which may involve new infrastructure, not to mention the monitoring and evaluation necessary to ensure that the outcomes are what was intended, and that the target population is actually deriving the expected benefit.

    Finally, there has to be the political will to make it happen. This is generally the most challenging component, as political will can be both tenuous and inconstant, and subject to uncontrollable influences both natural and manmade. An educational campaign, where such information distribution is allowed, can help to muster that political will as popular knowledge and support grows, not to mention the encouragement and funding from supportive institutions. (This is largely absent in Western legislative sectors regarding encryption).

    Regarding encryption backdoors, the tech community could be more aggressive in their public outreach to educate and mobilise the lay community, as they are both private sector and funder. What is further lacking is organised advocacy. Its absence caused the US lose out to Europe in particle physics research (no advocacy and budget overruns); while its presence helped the US win in planetary exploration for ocean worlds (advocacy and now legislation – by law a mission must now be conducted by NASA).

    Popular advocacy for consumer encryption solutions is vital, and may be the ultimate guarantor of its survival.

    In short, this is doable.

  9. garethharris@mac.com

    John, Here is my homage to human stupidity:
    Carl Sagan once said: ““We have designed our civilization based on science and technology and at the same time arranged things so that almost no one understands anything at all about science and technology. This is a clear prescription for disaster.” We have reached the point where we gave a proven ignoranus [intentional sp] the nuclear trigger. What’s next? Or better –
    When is the next disaster?

    This is similar to the Indiana PI bill of 1897, where a state legislature was attempting to legislate the value of PI in Indiana, fortunately rescued from disaster by a math professor from Purdue who happened on the scene.

    I call this the “ignorance of familiarity.” Most of us now use cars and cell phones. Few actually understand modern cars and cell phones, but many have developed all kinds of mistaken behaviors assuming what is happening “under the hood, inside the box.” I feel this is because humans have the fatal “desire to believe,” even in the face of evidence to the contrary.
    The truth is:
    THEY ARE ALL PENETRATED – every time.
    From the Enigma machine to RSA keys – they can all be penetrated. The breach is always unexpected, often having nothing to do with technology. I can’t recount to you how many keys and passwords I have found on post-it notes on the bottom of keyboards. The NAZIs repeated headers and salutations in their messages.

    One final homage to dysfunction: Frank Drake’s famous equation about the frequency of intelligent civilizations in our galaxy has a term for the lifetime of a civilization. How long do they last? Even now, We may be determining the lifetime of a society based on believing ignoranuses [intentional sp] – us. What could go wrong – wrong – … – wrong – wrong ??

  10. sed

    Non-technological people always think there is a technological solution to technological problems. Furthermore, these particular politicians and law enforcement personnel are proposing their own technological solution when they aren’t qualified to do so. Those of you who have gathered requirements from non-technical people will recognize this.

    There is also errors in perception and logic. They perceive Apple et. al. as individual entities who can keep secrets, and not a collection of people who can’t. One would think that the latest data breach at NSA would convince them that a backdoor cannot and will not remain secret. They completely ignore what criminals and terrorists gain by broken encryption. For every case that would gain by cracking encryption, there are dozens where it’s the criminal that gains.

  11. aardman

    @wab95. Agree on your point that the denigration of expert knowledge in the political debate applies primarily to the US. But let me add the UK where the Brexit vote was characterized by a similar dynamic.

    @garethharris, @sed. Your points relate to my contention that integrative knowledge has suffered a serious decline. The fact that these people fail to see any connection between the NSA breach and their demand for a backdoor for law enforcement points to a gross inability to see and understand “the whole picture”.

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