Apple is trying to uphold its pro-privacy reputation even as the US government demands it unlock yet another shooter’s phone. But with so much data in government hands already, are any principles left under its virtue-signaling?
The trillion-dollar tech firm has once again squared off against the Justice Department, this time over a pair of iPhones belonging to the 21-year-old Saudi military cadet who shot up a Pensacola naval base last month. Attorney General William Barr, riding high on a months-long crusade to force tech companies to implant backdoors in all encryption, appears determined to make Apple his test case, and President Donald Trump has joined him in calling the company out. But even as Apple has held firm to its insistence that “there’s no such thing as a backdoor just for the good guys,” its battle cry rings hollow in light of how it actually treats customers’ data.
Apple made its name on protecting users’ privacy better than competitors, though its reputation for defying data-hungry government agencies has eroded significantly since the death of founder Steve Jobs. The company joined the NSA’s now-notorious PRISM program when Jobs – an outspoken opponent of government surveillance – was just six months in the ground, and recently defended itself against charges it had turned privacy into a “luxury good” by comparing its “differential privacy” to Google’s manic data-slurping – hardly a high bar.
It’s not surprising, then, that Apple wants the world to know they refuse to back down in the face of Barr’s demands they unlock the Pensacola naval base shooter’s iPhones. CEO Tim Cook has even consulted with advisers, bracing for a possible legal battle with the FBI, according to anonymous Apple executives who may or may not have strategically leaked the news to the New York Times on Tuesday.
But Apple has already admitted they gave up “gigabytes of information,” turning over iCloud backups, account information, financial information, and other data from the shooter’s accounts as FBI requests came in, according to a statement posted on Monday after Barr slammed the company for supposedly failing to provide “substantive assistance” to the Pensacola investigation.
This isn’t the first time the company has clashed with law enforcement over its refusal to unlock a phone – nor the first time investigators have managed to get the data they need without Apple breaking its encryption. When Apple stonewalled the FBI in their efforts to access a phone owned by one of the shooters in a 2015 San Bernardino terror attack that killed 14, the agency reportedly paid an Israeli software firm $1.3 million to hack into it – only to find “nothing significant” on the device. Pensacola shooter Mohammed Alshamrani shot one of his phones and reportedly attempted to destroy the other, possibly complicating attempts to access the data using the usual third-party routes.
Apple customers know by now that the company doesn’t need to unlock their phones to feed their private data to crusading law enforcement – much of their data isn’t protected at all. Apple has complied with some 127,000 data requests from US law enforcement alone over the past seven years, and even holds seminars for police departments on how to quickly access a suspect’s phone, manning a designated hotline for “time-sensitive cases.” Certainly after it was revealed that human contractors listened to snippets of audio from the company’s AI voice assistant Siri, and more recently when Apple confirmed it scans all iCloud images for “child abuse,” customers know that while their data might not be public, it’s not particularly private either.
But just as Apple’s defense of encryption to protect user privacy rings false, so does Barr’s stated reason for going after the technology. Last year’s Five Eyes conference, in which US intelligence officials meet with their British, Australian, Canadian, and New Zealand counterparts to talk surveillance, strategized a full-frontal assault on encryption. The spooks hit the ground running, all declaring the tool is used primarily by child molesters and terrorists and all demanding their respective governments implement backdoors in platforms like WhatsApp and Signal – for the children, of course. As if on cue, Barr has used the clash over Alshamrani’s phones to call for a new anti-encryption law, one which would eliminate these troublesome objections from companies the Trump administration insists are giving succor to “violent criminal elements.”
But the Alshamrani case is already solved – at least, that’s what Barr claimed on Monday. The shooter acted alone, the shooting was terrorism, and 21 misbehaving Saudi cadets have been shipped back to their home country. Hauling Apple into court to demonize encryption is the AG’s own twisted form of virtue-signaling – one much more noxious than Apple’s phony privacy cheerleading.