Apple vs FBI: what will get you killed?

The fight between Apple and the FBI over unlocking an iPhone is not about technology. It’s about fear.

Which are you more afraid of: a terrorist attack or cancer?
That’s the way FBI and Apple are framing their dispute over the unlocking of an iPhone. The phone belonged to Syed Rizwan Farook, who, in early December of last year, attacked and killed fourteen people in San Bernadino.

The FBI is forcing Apple to build software to bypass the login lock - the phone is set to erase its contents if an incorrect code is entered more than ten times. Apple has refused to comply, claiming such “backdoor” software might fall into the hands of unwanted third parties or even criminals.

The FBI argues the software would only be used to unlock this particular iPhone. Apple, in response, claims the FBI botched their investigation and that constructing a backdoor would set a dangerous precedent: any company could be required to bypass their own security.

Framing and shaming

This conflict is not about technology. Rather, it is about fear. Are we more afraid of terrorists operating under the radar, or are we more of permanent governments scrutiny?

Apple accuses the FBI of deliberately picking the San Bernardino case, knowing the fear of a terrorist attack strongly affects the public’s judgement. Apple now feels the pressure of family members of the victims. The FBI promised them to follow every possible lead to other terrorists. Even though it is not certain if there is any useful data on the phone.

Ultimately the conflict comes down to framing. By giving into easily imaginable fears, we tend to overestimate the actual risk a situation poses. Terrorist attacks score high on the emotional ladder. Although  statistics  prove that chance of actually dying in such an attack is close to zero, our feelings cloud our judgement and say otherwise.  When it comes to moral reasoning the emotional tail wags the rational dog.

What will you kill you? These are the odds.

What will you kill you? These are the odds.

Terror vs. cancer

In a public letter Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, condemned the constructing of a backdoor in the iPhone software.  His opinion, however, is not shared widely, according to a Pew Research survey: a majority of Americans chose the FBI’s side in the matter. In an attempt to make his argument more tangible, Cook in a recent interview said that agreeing to the government’s demands would be creating the software equivalent of cancer, a malicious disease that will eventually affect all of our devices. Powerful framing indeed. It beats “disproportionate measure” or “dangerous precedent”. As expected, this quote was repeated often in the media.

Death threats and disease aside,  investigation services complain they can’t do their job anymore, because of improved encryption and login procedures on smartphones. But they do have a myriad of legal ways through which to retrieve data however.

In this digital age we leave more traces than ever. In theory this makes investigative work easier, not harder.  Most of our digital tracks are almost impossible to wipe out. Unless one enters the wrong code ten times in a row, that is.


additional translation by Harrison van der Vliet