Apparently books on iPhone back doors from 2015 is not officially closed for FBI. FBI Director shared the actual stats behind the requests last Sunday, around 6,900 devices. Following the Texas shooting, FBI once again shared its frustration that the bureau was unable to decrypt the shooter’s phone. Although the law enforcement did not disclose what kind of information they may be able to find on the device, it only supports the hypothesis that FBI is using reactive policing as a cover for broader proactive policing.
The term ‘proactive policing’ may not click right away, but you may have heard of different tools associated with the system, such as ‘profiling’. Contrary to the criticism, the very idea behind any kind of profiling is profound in nature; when a to-be-criminal meets a to-be-victim in the right settings, an act of crime occurs. With the information found on criminals’ possessions, regardless of its source, what kind of policing FBI is trying to achieve? Common wisdom says FBI will use any remaining useful data on the phone to track down the loose ends: perhaps larger organization behind the shooter, how shooter acquired the weapons, how the shooting could have been prevented, if it ever were. But the possibilities I’ve just listed, none of them constitutes as proactive policing; they are reactive in nature, responsive toward a crime that already took place. Yet the request the federal agency has made, in large, is a proactive one.
Take TSA’s security checks in airports as an example. After the tragic events of 9/11, the agency has added layers of security with troublesome regulations. And as much as we would like take comfort in these extensive measures, not only these checkpoints have proven to be ineffective, these regulations have rendered existing private securities futile, widening the risk for passengers to bear. TSA has been searching every luggage since 2006 with master keys, much like FBI has asked of Apple. Since the ban on private locks, most baggages are now “secured” with 3 digits combination, which then can be easily tempered with by any street delinquent or criminal mastermind to plant a bomb. In fact, no one takes these locks seriously, because if so, TSA may as well rip the bag open.
The only reason why TSA-approved locks have not been the subject of late, is solely due to the fact that around half of the US population are not frequent flyers, and, in fact, around 18% of them have never flown. Crunch those numbers into smartphones’, you are comparing a case where majority of the people don’t own a smartphone, and 18% of the population don’t even own any kind of telecommunication devices. Yet flyers are unanimously showing distaste toward TSA’s awkward regulations on board. If anything, the pervasive measures FBI is willing to take on smartphone manufacturers should be taken more seriously.
This is the fundamental flaw in both agencies; they distance themselves from technology which they could have used to their advantage. Instead, they wish to unarm citizens; take away the technology the citizens are benefitting from. This is no different from asking cellphones be turned off on-flight, because it will “un-do” flying. We are talking about an age of new technologies, where every living soul in America has at least a contact with handheld computers. The solution federal agencies mindlessly fall for cannot protect us. It simply makes it easier for investigators to blow up suspects, by keeping the population from equipping ourselves with 21st Century gadgets. Moreover, if there were a to-be-bomber who happens to be caught right on the radar, that person would be Tom Cruise the shit out of his iPads and Surface Pro, not un-arm himself.
This is where we return to the original question of proactive policing. From my limited background, I can easily tell you the persona of “criminal-to-be” is defined as a thug with no respect for the law nor the order. And vice-versa for “victim-to-be”, a law-abiding citizen who happens to be in the wrong location at the wrong time. In 99% of the cases, it is always victims who followed the rules and tragically were attacked upon, not vice-versa. No matter what anti-encryption regulations FBI is willing to whip up, hardly no criminals will show respect for it, especially when 63% of Android phone owners have rooted their phone against the warranty. Banning an OS-level encryption would only make people move to customized solution, move to encrypted messaging services, and even if regulatory bodies ban these services, there are VPNs to be exploited.
And much like luggages, phones will be unreliable in keeping out strangers; it would have pretty lock faces, but it wouldn’t stop terrorists from collecting data on their patsy. One of the current warning you can easily find on any airports is not to leave your luggage at any time; if someone did leave one behind or touched yours without permission, you must ask for security immediately. Same can be said with smartphones. These modern miracles come with different sensors and different tools with enough batteries and processors to sustain itself up to a day or two. If TSA-approved locks cannot protect luggages from being exploited, what are we to expect from FBI-approved encryptions? Who are they to guarantee it will never fall to the hands of terrorists? It takes a picture and a 3D printer to replicate these TSA master keys; it’s been done before. Attacks on smartphones will be much more invisible, and yet more widespread.
Last but not least, we should also not look away from the fact that Texas shooting was an isolated incident that was brought up and raised as a red herring. Opening the shooter’s phone could give some closures, but there is no secret society plotting against lady liberty. And if there was a secret society plotting against United States, that should not be an excuse to ban a technology or to wiretap every household, but an initiative to take down the said clandestine organization. We can make a compromise for 2 days in a year, but this must not escalate into a life full of compromises just for that one-in-a-lifetime crisis.