In this guest post famed Aussie author and scribe John Birmingham tries to make sense of the current spat between the FBI and Apple. If you enjoy spats then you’ll enjoy this…
Apple does not advise you stick the primary wing feather of a large bird into your iPhone, but the US Government is insisting on doing just that anyway. It won’t be good for your phone. The All Writs Act, the nail-studded legislative club with which the FBI intends to beat Cupertino into submission, was written before electricity was even a thing.
In those days, the US Supreme Court did all of its work with giant goose quill pens. In one of those strange anachronisms which so delight lawyers, twenty goose quill pens — neatly laid out like the crossed bones of a pirate flag — are still placed at the four counsel tables in front of the full bench of the Court every hearing day.
Apple’s lawyers will undoubtedly souvenir a couple for themselves when they go all the way to the Supremes to protect your phone from the FBI’s figurative but pointy goose quill. The Feebs have been planning to jab Tim Cook like this for years.
They were just waiting on the right case, and the mass shooting by husband and wife Sayed Farook and Tashfeen Malik in San Bernadino last December was the atrocity they had been praying for. The killers weren’t the sort of psychopaths the NRA would rush to defend. They were Muslims, with the beard and the black tent dress and everything. They were terrorists — or at least they looked like terrorists — and that was enough for FBI Director James Comey. He had the gotcha he’d been looking for.
Apple might be the world’s most valuable listed company (you’d have to check Google’s share price at the close of trading) — selling hundreds of millions of beloved iPhones every year — but if it resisted the Feebs on this, it ran a serious risk of being shit-canned as friends and allies of the guys who flew the planes into the Twin Towers. That’s how politics works, and Apple was being sucked into the vortex.
Tim Cook’s refusal to yield was brave — although he knew that, as details of the case trickled out, the government would look less and less righteous. For instance, they needed Apple to get into Farook’s 5C because they had, er, well, you know, changed the passcode themselves, and, erm, sort of, you know, forgotten it, or something. Anyway, Tim, could you just do us a solid and unlock the damn thing?
Just getting started
He also knew they weren’t just talking about unlocking this one damn thing. They had another twenty phones stacked up behind it. And behind them, when the precedent was set, would come another twenty or thirty or forty government agencies demanding they get access to people’s phones, iPads and computers. Before long, Sheriff Buford T. Beanland of Buttecracke County would be up in Cook’s face waving a bag full of phones he was certain contained incriminatin’ sex pictures in his important chicken-sexing case.
Cook also knew, and made plain, that James Comey wasn’t just asking for a hack around a passcode. If the passcode (the one the FBI changed, if you remember) was a sort of magic ribbon protecting the dead man’s 5C, Comey wasn’t asking Cook to cut the ribbon. He was ordering him to build a factory that would turn out bespoke ribbon cutters for the FBI — now and in perpetuity.
Naturally, the FBI only wants to talk about the accursed Farook, but once Apple has been forced to build it the magic ribbon cutter, Sheriff Beanland will want his and the IRS will want theirs, and on it will go until somebody like the Chinese secret police (and the not so secret police) demand their own ribbon cutters too.
James Comey is the Oprah Winfrey of state surveillance — “You get a ribbon cutter and you get a ribbon cutter and you get a ribbon cutter …”
You might not care if ASIO or DSD gets to perve on your sexy texts and naughty pics, but if you’re in business you might care if your competitors can access the code that gives them a ribbon cutter to slice through the security on all of your data.
That is the scenario Apple is resisting. That is why the other tech giants are lining up behind it. They couldn’t care less about Sayed Farook.