The battle between Apple Computer and the FBI is not just about the encrypted messages on one iPhone. What it is really about is expanding the legal ability of the Federal Government to spy on it’s citizens. This has been an ongoing battle largely behind the scenes between tech developers and Government agencies such as NIST and the NSA. Indeed in 1988 the Government forced standards groups to make TCP/IP the telecom standard upon which the Internet is based, and rejected the OSI standard in large part because the OSI Standard included encryption that was difficult to break, and features which allowed the development of advanced security technologies at the “transmission” level, whereas TCP had none, and was easily compromised by government spooks, who had been using and testing the vulnerabilities of the protocol stack for years. The Internet is not secure, and by design – can never be secured, which is why the Government defense and intelligence agencies use a custom variation of TCP/IP which incorporates capabilities to enhance secure communication.
There are roughly 7 major Commercial Off The Shelf encryption systems in use today. In order to sell those in the US, NSA requires that security “backdoors” be built in such that the systems may be easily compromised by the NSA, and we would assume law enforcement agencies. This requirement does not cover, and has not covered to this point encryption systems on devices which store information internally in flash memory or disk drives. As such manufacturers and equipment owners have been free to encrypt an secure their data by any means they deem appropriate.
There is no such thing as unbreakable encryption. Even that used by the most secret agencies in the Government isn’t unbreakable. What it is is a system which is difficult enough to break that only another government or massive corporation has access to the computer horsepower and scientists to do so – which costs lots and lots of money. So it is actually a race to develop new, more complex systems as the previous system is broken. And I can tell you from personal experience that two guys in a garage that against odds come up with something new and radical which might give those systems heartburn – are in for a visit by the guys in black suits shortly after letting the world know you’ve developed it.
Now – most of what you see on TV about the technology is bullshit. You are not breaking into a unknown secured local network just in time for the hero to do his thing with your trusty laptop. There is no such thing as a 100% secure network, if it has any connection at all to the Internet. The Internet of Things (IoT) which is a hot-button meme right now in the industry isn’t going to happen, because the security in wireless systems is so poor (on purpose and by design).
So…If you are using commercial off the shelf products like cell phones and computers – you can’t stop them from listening in. What you can do is make it difficult enough that unless somebody like the NSA comes after you, you have security. Which is exactly what Apple did.
Here’s why civil rights activists are siding with the tech giant.
Last night, the FBI, saying that it may be able to crack an iPhone without Apple’s help, convinced a federal judge to delay the trial over its encryption dispute with the tech company. In February, you may recall, US magistrate judge Sheri Pym ruledthat Apple had to help the FBI access data from a phone used by one of the San Bernadino shooters. Apple refused, arguing that it would have to invent software that amounts to a master key for iPhones—software that doesn’t exist for the explicit reason that it would put the privacy of millions of iPhone users at risk. The FBI now has two weeks to determine whether its new method is viable. If it is, the whole trial could be moot.
That would be a mixed blessing for racial justice activists, some of them affiliated with Black Lives Matter, who recently wrote to Judge Pym and laid out some reasons she should rule against the FBI. Theletter—one of dozens sent by Apple supporters—cited the FBI’s history of spying on civil rights organizers and shared some of the signatories’ personal experiences with government overreach.
“One need only look to the days of J. Edgar Hoover and wiretapping of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. to recognize the FBI has not always respected the right to privacy for groups it did not agree with,” they wrote. (Targeted surveillance of civil rights leaders was also a focus of a recent PBS documentary on the Black Panther Party.) Nor is this sort of thing ancient history, they argued: “Many of us, as civil rights advocates, have become targets of government surveillance for no reason beyond our advocacy or provision of social services for the underrepresented.”
Black Lives Matter organizers have good reason to be concerned. Last summer, I reported that a Baltimore cyber-security firm had identified prominent Ferguson organizer (and Baltimore mayoral candidate) Deray McKesson as a “threat actor” who needed “continuous monitoring” to ensure public safety. The firm—Zero Fox—briefed members of an FBI intelligence partnership program about the data it had collected on Freddie Gray protest organizers. It later passed the information along to Baltimore city officials.
Department of Homeland Security emails, meanwhile, have indicated that Homeland tracked the movements of protesters and attendees of a black cultural event in Washington, DC, last spring. Emails from New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority and the Metro-North Railroad showed that undercover police officers monitored the activities of known organizers at Grand Central Station police brutality protests. The monitoring was part of a joint surveillance effort by MTA counter-terrorism agents and NYPD intelligence officers. (There are also well-documentedinstances of authorities spying on Occupy Wall Street activists.)
In December 2014, Chicago activists, citing a leaked police radio transmission—alleged that city police used a surveillance device called a Stingray to intercept their texts and phone calls during protests over the death of Eric Garner. The device, designed by military and space technology giant Harris Corporation, forces all cell phones within a given radius to connect to it, reroutes communications through the Stingray, and allows officers to read texts and listen to phone calls—as well as track a phone’s location. (According to theACLU, at least 63 law enforcement agencies in 21 states use Stingrays in police work—frequently without a warrant—and that’s probably an underestimate, since departments must signagreements saying they will not disclose their use of the device.)
In addition to the official reports, several prominent Black Lives organizers in Baltimore, New York City, and Ferguson, Missouri, shared anecdotes of being followed and/or harassed by law enforcement even when they weren’t protesting. One activist told me how a National Guard humvee had tailed her home one day in 2014 during the Ferguson unrest, matching her diversions turn for turn. Another organizer was greeted by dozens of officers during a benign trip to a Ferguson-area Wal-Mart, despite having never made public where she was going.
In light of the history and their own personal experiences, many activists have been taking extra precautions. “We know that lawful democratic activism is being monitored illegally without a warrant,” says Malkia Cyril, director of the Center for Media Justice in Oakland and a signatory on the Apple-FBI letter. “In response, we are using encrypted technologies so that we can exercise our democratic First and Fourth Amendment rights.” Asked whether she believes the FBI’s promises to use any software Apple creates to break into the San Bernadino phone only, Cyril responds: “Absolutely not.”
“I don’t think it’s any secret that activists are using encryption methods,” says Lawrence Grandpre, an organizer with Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle in Baltimore. Grandpre says he and others used an encrypted texting app to communicate during the Freddie Gray protests. He declined to name the app, but said it assigns a PIN to each phone that has been approved to access messages sent within a particular group of people. If an unapproved device tries to receive a message, the app notifies the sender and blocks the message from being sent. Grandpre says he received these notifications during the Freddie Gray protests: “Multiple times we couldn’t send text messages because the program said there’s a possibility of interception.”
Cyril says “all of the activists I know” use a texting and call-encryption app calledSignal to communicate, and that the implication of a court verdict in favor of the FBI would be increased surveillance of the civil rights community. “It’s unprecedented for a tech company—for any company—to be compelled in this way,” Cyril says….