“People shouldn’t be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people.”
— Alan Moore, author and inspiration for the “V for Vendetta” political thriller
This quote from more than 20 years ago seems even more insightful and prescient today as the FBI and Justice Department continue their relentless judicial quest to force Apple to decrypt an iPhone belonging to the shooter in the San Bernardino terrorist attack.
How did we get here?
There are eerie parallels to World War II, when the British waged perhaps the greatest battle never fought on a battlefield, as government scientists raced to break Germany’s “Enigma” code.
Similar to iPhone security, “Enigma” was a closed and proprietary security platform but in this historic case the platform was used to shield top-secret German military communication from the Allies. The race to reverse engineer “Enigma” proved to be as important to the outcome of the war as the gunpowder used to fight bloody battles all over Europe.
WWII was a case of governments vs. governments. Fast forward to the present, and it seems the current battle is a case of government vs. a company.
The stark reality is that encryption has replaced gunpowder as one of the most feared weapons on the planet for both good and evil. The FBI is essentially asking Apple to break its own security and encryption to intentionally “disarm” its products and weaken encryption – its proprietary gunpowder used to help it compete in global markets. In the process, the privacy of people may be added to the endangered list of freedoms.
But something very interesting has happened. Since the end of World War II funding of technology has slowly shifted from the government to private enterprises supported by venture capital and public markets. To fund this technology the consumer doesn’t pay taxes to the government in the traditional sense. Instead, it pays in the form of purchasing products, and they purchase lots of them (Apple is rapidly approaching the one billion mark in iPhones sold). Just as people look to their government for physical protection during a war, citizens now expect privacy protection from their new authority figures, including the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Dropbox.
Borders are no longer defined by geography, they are defined by encryption. He who controls the encryption keys controls the digital border, and Apple controls an enormous border.
In the post-Edward Snowden world, governments fear technology companies more than the people. These tech firms have erected impenetrable borders with strong encryption and key protection with no back doors. Governments can’t impose sanctions or clamp a trade embargo against the mathematics of encryption but they can try to force companies to “disarm” encryption and create unlocked backdoors to enter unannounced.
Where do we go from here?
A majority of Americans now seem to think Apple should decrypt the phone in question, even as the government is asking Apple to do the same thing with about a dozen other phones not involved in terrorism cases. How ironic.
Just last June Congress passed legislation to reign in government overreach in response to public outrage over the broad scope of NSA surveillance. Now, just seven months later, we run the risk of allowing the government to limit privacy and potentially trample trust between government and the people.
China is a case in point. Yahoo and Adobe pulled their R&D out of China, and Google shut down its Google.cn search there as a result of mistrust of a government with prying eyes and an insatiable surveillance appetite. We don’t want this kind of mistrust in the U.S.
The bottom line is we are on the edge of a slippery slope here. Apple is fighting the good fight, but if it’s forced to fold its hand, we may find that people could again become afraid of government, and Alan Moore will have seen the future.
Vice President Product at Rubicon Labs Inc.