As many of you have read in the news, Apple is currently resisting government demands that they provide a way to break the security of iOS to help with the investigation into the San Bernardino shooters. On the surface, this sounds like a laudable request: the government's desire to find key information in an investigation which may help prevent another tragedy in the future.
Unfortunately, this thinking is as flawed as it is dangerous.
First, and contrary to what the media may report or what the government may say, they will never be able to prevent lone shooters using technology alone. They may stop some as a result of information gained in an investigation, but not the next one. Nor the one after that. Technology is great and, when properly applied, can have a very beneficial affect in saving lives. But technology is an enhancement to - not a good replacement for - human intelligence (HUMINT) and law enforcement.
The government stinks at prevention, and they always will. We shouldn’t want it differently, because a government who can predict and prevent every such tragedy is totalitarian in every sense of the word. It would have to be in order to be successful. They would have to dictate what you are allowed to think or say by arresting you the minute they believe you said something dangerous or officious - even if you never intended it as a call to action or desired anything more than to be allowed to speak your mind.
Second, it is also dangerous for us to think that, even should we believe our government is benign and this is an altruistic desire to protect us, they can protect the keys to the encryption they take away. In just the last year, the government has proven time and again that they are not prepared to protect anything digitally. The OPM breath, the single biggest loss of personal data in human history, is just the latest example of their lack of ability to protect anything.
The government never punished their own for that exposure. No one has served a day in jail.
It is also true that the government had the chance to successfully gain access to the information they required, but their own analysts botched the investigation. Then they said they wanted Apple to only unlock this one device – yet they have a dozen other such writ requests already in with Apple for a dozen other cases before this one. Does this sound like a government who only plans to use the writ process for this one request?
I have heard so many people make the comment, "well, it's ok if the government has access to my stuff. I have nothing to hide." More dangerous thinking. The things we find dangerous and worthy of tracking today are far different than those of 2000, or 1995, or 1985. The list never gets smaller. So it is very possible that the way we think today and what we feel it is okay to say aloud or online may not be okay tomorrow. When that day comes, you will have something to hide – because you will have had an online history of saying it already. Today, because of technology, our opinions and statements are never ever forgotten. They are catalogued and preserved essentially forever.
What happens when we have allowed our government to look into our lives and thoughts and groups so much that we are suddenly the bad guys? The mentality that if we can just look at every post, every group, every email, and every thought we can weed out the bad guys is neither accurate nor realistic - and it in no way supports the belief in the right of every American to live in a free society.
Freedom is the hardest form of government to live in, not the easiest. Freedom requires that we exercise restraint and integrity on our own - rather than when and how our government tells us. It requires that we do the right things when no one is looking and that, should we choose not to, we will be punished.
Governing a free society is also hard. When it becomes easy it is no longer a free society - it is a lazily governed one. Thus, a government which governs the free and allows its citizens to make the daily and momentary choice between right and wrong is - by the very nature of that freedom - reactive. It cannot prevent such tragedies fully forever.
Human intelligence and good law enforcement, trained and experienced people on the ground among the truly dangerous bad guys, can properly separate them from ordinary citizens who are angry or frustrated but not hostile. HUMINT and law enforcement keep us from bombing weddings and hospitals accidentally. HUMINT and law enforcement protect the rights of the people to speak out freely while identifying those who really wish to do harm.
Finally, in the Apple v. government fight, Apple has taken a stand in defense of all our freedom. Encryption allows us to protect what we think and desire, to share it with only those we choose to in a time and manner in which we choose to share it. To allow the government to violate this is to allow them to know, now and forever, our every thought - whether or not it agrees with the current administration or the societal norms of today or – more frighteningly - tomorrow. Governments never give back power once they have it, so - should they prevail, encryption will continue to be violated because the precedent to do so will be set. This will be true both here and abroad, as Russia, China, and other governments will immediately demand the same access from Apple as well.
If we give up access to secure encryption to our government we give up our last hope of being able to protect ourselves from that government - or other governments (who have proven they can easily steal from that ours whenever they wish). We relinquish the freedom of thought and expression, the freedom of assembly and protest, and - ultimately - the freedom to put that government out to pasture when we no longer find it tolerable.
Encryption must remain free for a connected, online society to remain free as well. Once we lose this liberty, we will never get it back. This is why it is so imperative that Apple prevail in this fight. We should all stand behind them.