President Donald Trump tweeted on Tuesday night that Apple needed to start cooperating with government requests to decrypt the phones of criminals and others who the government might want to investigate.
His comments came in the wake of two related incidents: Trump’s own attorney general, William Barr, called on Apple to decrypt a phone belonging to the alleged shooter who killed three people in Pensacola, Florida, which Apple refused to do, just as it refused to decrypt a phone belonging to a shooter in the 2015 San Bernardino, California, shootings.
Then, in a December Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, two law enforcement officials tried to convince Apple and Facebook to provide a backdoor that essentially overrides the companies’ encryption and would allow authorities access to anyone’s phones, messages, or social media accounts.
Both companies have so far refused to comply, even over the threats of Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-South Carolina) of “if y’all don’t do it, we will.” But experts warn that any kind of backdoor into your iPhone would most likely also be exploited by thieves to easily get into stolen phones.
We are helping Apple all of the time on TRADE and so many other issues, and yet they refuse to unlock phones used by killers, drug dealers and other violent criminal elements. They will have to step up to the plate and help our great Country, NOW! MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 14, 2020
Jennifer Granick, surveillance and cybersecurity counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), told Digital Trends that muggings and street crime would without doubt increase if companies created a backdoor, or a golden key, or some way to involuntarily decrypt the phones of private citizens. Privacy advocates have repeatedly said if a phone can be decrypted by the government, it can be decrypted by anyone.
“One thing that insecure phones result in is street crime,” she told Digital Trends. “If phones can be unlocked and can be read, it puts you at greater risk of someone hitting you over the head and stealing your backpack. Criminals know all they’ll get is just a brick and they can’t do anything with it. It’s expensive to unlock and they just can’t do anything with it.
“If you look at the early days of the iPhone and now, there are fewer examples of just random street crime, because the phones themselves are not useful if you can’t unlock and use them,” Granick told Digital Trends. “So the strong encryption protects against the physical theft of devices, as well as the data on that phone if (for example) you’re at a conference and it has trade secrets on it.”
Encryption led to a drop in crime
The numbers somewhat bear out the ACLU’s assertion. In 2012, CBS wrote that the theft of iPhones had driven up crime in New York, which had previously seen a consecutive 15-year fall in crime.
In 2013, then-New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman noted that a then-new feature on the iPhones had contributed to a decrease in phone thefts: The feature was a kill-switch called “Activation Lock,” that would remotely brick a phone if it were stolen, thus rendering it useless to a thief hoping to resell it. Authorities in New York, San Francisco, and London released a report detailing how smartphone theft had been driving up crime, and that this kill switch was acting as an effective deterrent.
Security vs. privacy
The question of encryption and privacy extends beyond the halls of the Senate chamber or governments trying to get into the phones of terrorists. Granick said the fact that phones are default encrypted helps prevent corporate espionage, as well as keep people safe from domestic abusers: Encryption prevents the involuntary installation of so-called stalkerware, which abusers can use track the movements of their partners.
“This helps people who are close to abusers and need to protect themselves,” she said. “There’s everyday things that a phone with a strong password protects us from.”
“The attorney general’s request that Apple re-engineer its phones to break that security imperils millions of innocent Americans and others around the globe.”
And a precedent of governments being able to unlock phones would have ripple effects, said Sean McGrath, privacy advocate at the U.K.-based digital privacy group ProPrivacy.
“The FBI and the Trump administration are taking a short view,” McGrath said in a statement to Digital Trends. “The government believes that any such mechanism to access an iPhone’s data would be limited to these use cases, but the truth is there is no way to guarantee such control … this would likely set a precedent both in the U.K and elsewhere.”
“The attorney general’s request that Apple re-engineer its phones to break that security imperils millions of innocent Americans and others around the globe, and is a poor trade-off for security policy.” said Kurt Opsahl, Electronic Frontier Foundation general counsel, in an email statement to Digital Trends.
“It’s very interesting and understandable that there are an increasing number of people in Congress using secure end-to-end communications,” said Granick. “But now there’s friction between these two points of view of ‘I want strong encryption but I want the FBI to be able to get into my phone whenever they ask.’”
Graham, in the Senate Judiciary hearing in December, expressed exactly this sentiment: “I appreciate the fact that people cannot hack into my phone. I think all of us want devices that protect our privacy,” he said during the hearing. “Having said that, no American should want a device that becomes a safe haven for criminality.”
Granick also said she didn’t think this was an issue that was going to resolve itself anytime soon. “This is a fight that’s been going on for decades,” she said. “It’s part of the agenda for the [Justice Department], and it’s still going to be a piece of the agenda 35 years from now when I’m retired.”
“Civil liberties activists come and go, but the [Justice Department] view that it should be able to have access to whatever information they need for an investigation regardless of constitutional rights or cybersecurity is not going away,” she said.
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