FBI Cranky at Apple for Securing iOS, Only Has Itself (and NSA) to Blame

The FBI and other law enforcement folk are tense about Apple's gleeful proclamation that the company can't decrypt our data. FBI Director James Comey told reporters that he is "very concerned" about tech companies like Apple and Google stepping up their privacy game and protecting customer data.

The director was responding to Apple's iOS 8 marketing, which included:

Unlike our competitors, Apple cannot bypass your passcode and therefore cannot access this data. So it's not technically feasible for us to respond to government warrants for the extraction of this data from devices in their possession running iOS 8.

iSpyGoogle answered Apple's claim by announcing that Android "L," the next major release of its mobile operating system, will similarly encrypt customer data by default.

"I am a huge believer in the rule of law," Mr. Comey said, according to The Huffington Post. "But I am also a believer that no one in this country is above the law. What concerns me about this is companies marketing something expressly to allow people to place themselves above the law."

From my perspective, U.S. law enforcement, intelligence agencies, and the politicians who rushed to feed our privacy to the security wolves in the wake of 9/11 have only themselves to blame for Silicon Valley taking matters in its own collective hands.

From police searching smartphones without a warrant (which was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court) to the U.S. National Security Agency slurping up everything that it can because it can, people and governments alike are leery of U.S. tech firms. Nobody trusts law enforcement (on this issue), U.S. intelligence (on anything), and it's U.S. tech companies that are and will continue to pay the financial price.

Many of the largest U.S. technology firms were accused in Edward Snowden's leaked classified documents of giving backdoor access to the NSA to their various cloud services and servers. All of those companies have denied doing so—and they may be telling the truth—but the accusation itself eroded confidence in U.S. tech companies, especially overseas.

I've argued in the past that this could have a significant impact on U.S. tech firms as some business and development resources get funneled to companies outside the U.S. It's also given countries like China ammunition in limiting access to Apple and other U.S. companies to its markets.

Apple, for instance, has yet to secure permission to sell the iPhone 6 line in China, and that country has voiced concerns that Apple's products would enable the U.S. to spy on its citizens and businesses. Russia has also demanded the source code for Apple's OS X and iOS so that it can look for evidence of U.S. spying.

It's nonsense, of course, and is largely about international politics, broader spying and hacking by all sides, economic interests within China, and tension stemming from Russia's slow-motion theft of Ukrainian sovereignty.

That doesn't matter, because the reason Russia and China can point fingers at Apple in the first place starts with U.S. law enforcement and intelligence services believing they have a right to everyone's data in the first place. People on that side of the badge appear to believe they can have that access without their being any ramifications, and that isn't the case.

Image made with help from Shutterstock.

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To be sure, law enforcement and intelligence agencies want that data because it often makes catching bad guys easier. Mr. Comey, for instance, noted that:

I like and believe very much that we should have to obtain a warrant from an independent judge to be able to take the content of anyone's closet or their smart phone. The notion that someone would market a closet that could never be opened -- even if it involves a case involving a child kidnapper and a court order -- to me does not make any sense.

Mr. Comey, allow me to introduce you to something I like to call a "safe." Best get on that one, because you can buy them, like, everywhere. Secondly, this isn't a closet "no one can open," it's a closet that only the customer can open. See the aforementioned "safe."

This is such a bad strawman argument, it puts me on tilt.

Mr. Comey went on to say:

Google is marketing their Android the same way: Buy our phone and law-enforcement, even with legal process, can never get access to it.

There will come a day -- well it comes every day in this business -- when it will matter a great, great deal to the lives of people of all kinds that we be able to with judicial authorization gain access to a kidnapper's or a terrorist or a criminal's device. I just want to make sure we have a good conversation in this country before that day comes. I'd hate to have people look at me and say, 'Well how come you can't save this kid,' 'how come you can't do this thing.'

SecurityRight, I get it. Law enforcement is hard. Catching bad guys is hard. Saving the victim of a kidnapping is a good thing. These are all real, important, and very serious issues and concepts.

But the reality is that living in a free society comes with risks. Many people want to pretend that isn't the case, and they're willing to trade in their civil rights, freedom, and privacy in order to protect themselves and/or their loved ones.

At the same time, law enforcement (and security forces) are generally willing to make that trade, too, because it makes protecting people easier. Protecting people is a noble goal. It's laudable. But there must always be tension between freedom and security—the alternative is to live in a true police state.

This is the entire point of this rant: if the cops can get your data, so can the bad guys. Plain and simple. In that I am far, far more likely to be the victim of identity theft or data theft than I am of being murdered or kidnapped, I want my data secure. In that I understand that living in a free society sometimes means bad things happen, I also accept those risks.

That's all philosophizing, though, and there is no objective truth on the balance of privacy and security. There is no optimal answer that will work for all people, all governments, all law enforcement, all the time.

When it comes to business, though, there is something approaching an objective truth.

1.) Apple is dealing with the real chance of being shut out of one or more markets because of U.S. spying.

2.) As privacy and security become more important—as I think they will—whichever company makes the more secure platform(s) will reap the benefits.

So Apple has taken the matter into its own hands. The company has banked heavily on customer privacy—promoting iOS 8 as secure, even from government warrants, is merely the latest extension of that investment. It's also a message that is aimed far more at international markets than it is the U.S.

If Apple finds success in the marketplace, both in the U.S. and abroad, other companies will follow suit.

And law enforcement and U.S. intelligence services have only themselves to blame.