​should the fbi be allowed to hack your iphone?

With Apple and the US security service locked in a very public fight about whether or not the tech giant should create what they say is a ‘backdoor’ into every single iPhone, i-D investigates whether the government request represents a sensible...

by John Ridpath
01 March 2016, 10:13am

Last week, Tim Cook waged war on the FBI. In an open declaration -- currently at the somewhat underwhelming URL apple.com/customer-letter -- the Apple CEO spelled out the threat in a "A Message to Our Customers". FBI agents have requested help unlocking an Apple iPhone 5c formerly owned by one of the San Bernardino shooters. Cook goes on to discuss the "chilling" implications of building a "backdoor" into their products.

Cook's salvo is the latest chapter of what some are calling Crypto Wars 2.0. You might have missed Crypto Wars 1.0, but this month also marked the 20 year anniversary of another open message. John Perry Barlow's A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace was published in February 1996. Barlow evoked the "we the people" spirit of the US Declaration of Independence with his missive. His desire to defend liberty and topple the state-sponsored "guard posts at the frontiers of Cyberspace" might seem hopelessly naive, but the early internet was very much a product of these ideals: "Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. You have neither solicited nor received ours. We did not invite you".

For the iPhone generation, a reminder of those uninvited government guests came in the form of Edward Snowden's exposure of several government-led mass surveillance programmes. Such was the reach of the NSA, that in 2013 Angela Merkel compared their behaviour to the Stasi -- the repressive state security apparatus of East Germany from 1950 to 1990. The Stasi placed bugs and secret cameras in people's homes, stationed officers to watch over offices and factories, and employed an informant in every apartment building to maintain lists of people's visiting friends and relatives. If the Stasi had untapped access to citizen's iPhones their lives would have been a lot easier.

Unlock your smartphone. What could I learn about you from, say, your messages and emails? Who are you friends with? What time you speak to them? How are they connected? Perhaps I can uncover your personal relationships, your deepest anxieties, your recreational drug habit, or maybe your infidelities. What about if I looked through your photos? Maybe you aren't that into nude selfies. How about your browsing history? If you are permanently signed into a Google account, I can go to google.com/history and see a beautifully formatted page breaking down your search history. In case you're interested, I've made 36,727 Google searches. My peak days for searching are Tuesday and Thursday. My top search click is Wikipedia. So far, so safe for work. But let's get more specific. At 09:57 today I searched for "bidet" (I can explain!). Yesterday at 19:34, I searched for "85 kg in stone".

If you're on an iPhone, try Settings > Privacy > Location Services. Scroll down. Select "system services". Scroll down. Select "Frequent Locations". Ta-da! Here's your location history. I can click on an entry to see where you (probably) live and work on a user-friendly map. Apple frequently changes the path through the settings labyrinth, but a quick Google search will help you find it again.

You can see how our devices become very personal very quickly. And if you don't have lock on your iPhone, anyone who can obtain your phone (legally or illegally) can access this level of information. In the case of the San Bernardino shooter, he had not only used a pin to lock his iPhone, he had also enabled a new security setting that will wipe your phone's data after 10 incorrect pin guesses. According to Cook, this is where the FBI want Apple to build a new backdoor.

Sadly "we the customers" aren't all that likely to join Barlow's cry of "we did not invite you". Most people would probably say "we've got nothing to hide" or "we don't think the government cares about our selfies". And we probably all agree that the government should do anything in its power to avoid further tragedies like San Bernardino (well, as far as half the US population is concerned, anything except stricter gun control laws). But for Cook, the FBI's proposed backdoor could be used by the government in more controversial cases. Or even exploited by sophisticated cybercriminals.

When privacy is pitted against national security, shouldn't we be more trustful of our elected officials than the chief executives of Silicon Valley? Probably. But as Robert Levine put it in his New York Times op-ed, "while nobody elected Mr. Cook to protect our privacy, we should be glad someone is."

Tech companies like Apple, WhatsApp and Google have been upping their security and use of encryption since Snowden -- but do they always stay true to their "Don't Be Evil" principles when handling their customer's data? Search Google for "Rides of Glory" and you can dig out stories of a now-deleted blog post in which Uber's data science team attempted to map one night stands in major US cities, simply by identifying users who had "brief" overnight stays in new locations. Needless to say, Uber customers did not take kindly to being analysed in this way.

In this case, Apple seem to be motivated by a genuine concern that customer privacy and security could be undermined by the FBI's request. Whether that's down to a commercial or moral concern depends on your level of scepticism. Either way, Crypto Wars 2.0 feels a lot like a battle between government security agencies and large corporations. And while companies like Apple have a duty to protect their customers -- and the FBI have a duty to defend their citizens -- "we the customers" should be the ones deciding our own fate.


Text John Ridpath, Head of Product at Decoded
Fashion Director Charlotte Stockdale
Photography and styling models