I’ll tell you what happened: the feds tried to force the issue, and backed down. The key variable here is the amount of time that elapsed between the FBI’s order to Apple to build software that would unlock the phone, and today’s announcement that the order is moot, as the FBI unlocked the phone on its own. Wow, you say: you were totally stumped by this phone problem a few weeks ago – at such an impasse that you ordered Apple to devote substantial resources to defeat the phone’s encryption – and then a few weeks later you have the solution! You must have been so lucky! I mean, that’s good: you accomplished in a few weeks what it would have taken Apple months to do. Now you don’t have to fight through a long lawsuit.
From the start Tim Cook said this case would set a bad precedent for tech companies and their customers. A bad precedent for us is a good precedent for our self-appointed guardians: those deluded agents who think they serve and protect us by spying on us all the time. They aimed to make this case a test of Apple’s willingness and ability to resist. Because it comes out of the San Bernardino shootings with all the prominence that crime commands, they hoped Apple would go along, with all the bad consequences Cook said would follow. Cook’s stiff spine made the FBI rethink its strategy of forcing this issue: thus the announcement today that the court order for Apple is no longer in effect.
We’ll never know whether the FBI actually cracked the phone or not. The FBI may care about the data on that device, but it cares a lot more about achieving submission from a tech giant like Apple. If it could have coerced Cook, it would have been a significant victory in the struggle that started when Edward Snowden showed three years ago how much the tech giants’ will had eroded in practice. The feds had worn them down with all their demands, secret letters, requests for data, and pressure for backdoors. When Snowden drew attention to the giants’ somewhat reluctant but still significant complicity, the giants’ stiffened their resistance. The San Bernardino phone, if they could win, was the FBI’s chance to restore their initiative.
When Tim Cook said no, we’re not going to do that, the feds had a decision to make. Do we want to fight this battle in the courts, where quick victories never happen, or do we want to fold on this one and try again later? The face saving way to fold is to say they were able to crack the phone on their own. Remember, if the FBI cracks the phone on its own in just a few weeks, they did not need Apple’s help to do it. The fact that the feds issued their order to Apple in public, something they almost never do, revealed their aims right at the start. Normally they order their targets to keep quiet, and in the old days both sides were happy if customers did not know what was going on.
Now customers know what is going on. After Snowden made the feds’ coercive data requests public, the feds had to find a way to maintain their position of power. They could have said yes, we have to back off here, and curtail our surveillance practices. When, however, has any government with expanding power decided to curtail itself? The feds want the tech giants to bow down to them in public, now that Snowden disrupted the private relationship.
So thank you, Tim Cook, for taking a public stand. If you had obeyed the FBI’s order, we most assuredly would not have heard today that the FBI succeeded in cracking the San Bernardino phone on its own. If Apple had folded, the feds would have had their trophy and their precedent. The FBI would say, Apple helped us on this one: from now on the giants will help us with other requests as well. How can the giants object, now that Apple has willingly compromised its phones? Now they’ve done it once, why wouldn’t they do it again?
We always think we have to obey government, because after all, government makes laws. This case shows that you can disobey, and force the agency that gives illegal orders to back down. We ought to keep this example in mind. The FBI may think it saved face here, but we need to recognized what actually happened. The feds picked a public fight with one of the giants, and lost.
I like how credulous the media have been about the FBI’s claim that it unlocked the San Bernardino iPhone. The FBI, one of the most dishonest agencies in the feds’ lineup, has offered no evidence whatsoever that it actually succeeded. It says that a third party contractor did the job, but it won’t name the third party. It says it has access to the iPhone’s information, but says nothing about what it found. It was ready to fight Apple for years, in court, then a few weeks after filing suit says, “Never mind, we have it all taken care of.”
These jokers have the credibility of a cow patty. If they say they cracked the iPhone, why should we accept that? As the feds themselves are fond of saying, “We have no credible evidence to conclude that…” Well we can apply the same standard to their pronouncements: we have no credible evidence that the FBI accomplished what it said it did. Who in the world would take this organization on its word?
You might say the days of J. Edgar Hoover, a vicious, unscrupulous man if ever one existed, are long over. The man seems to have cast a long shadow, though, as the agency he shaped has little improvement to show for the decades that have passed since Hoover died. In fact, during the rise of the surveillance state after 9/11, the FBI has become worse, along with other federal security agencies.
Follow-up articles in the media indicate the FBI does not plan to release any information at all about its great success. The great PR push since 9/11 touted better information sharing among intelligence and security agencies. Well sorry, not this time folks. We plan to keep this one to ourselves. You have a big backlog of phones you need to unlock? Too bad for your backlog. We like to keep secrets, and you are on your own.
Local police departments don’t protest either! How do you suppose they feel after they devote so many resources to their relationship with the granddaddy agency of them all? If the FBI’s sudden, secret success, along with its determination to keep its methods top secret, leaves local law enforcement a little miffed, they don’t show it. I wonder if they treat the FBI’s claim as credulously as the media do.
Give the FBI this much credit. If they or someone they hired actually cracked the phone, they’ve demonstrated more technical competence than government has shown for a long time. If they did not crack the phone, they sure do a good job of making people believe them. How does an agency known globally as crooked and corrupt get people to swallow what it says without evidence? People and organizations with unburied bones would like to know the FBI’s secret.
In publication for since the early 2000s, The Jeffersonian has produced several excellent collections of essays on politics. To learn about these books, and their author, visit Dr. G’s Writing Workshop.