How The FBI Versus Apple Could Make 1984 A Reality

How the FBI Versus Apple Could Make 1984 a Reality

Amicus briefs in support of Apple in its court battle with the FBI are rolling in today, and the Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Technology's contribution is a horror story of impending dystopia, with eerie parallels to 1984. The CIT technologists lay out a scenario in which the FBI uses the Apple ruling as precedent to force tech companies to turn televisions, computer monitors and other internet-connected devices into a web of in-home surveillance hubs.

The FBI wants Apple to create a special software to help it unlock the iPhone of a San Bernardino mass shooting suspect. Apple is arguing that conscripting it to write code that will weaken its security will set a chilling legal precedent to allow the US government to strong-arm tech companies into weakening their security measures.

In CIT's projected scenario, it's not just police pressuring Apple to turn on iPhones -- it's law enforcement turning Amazon Echo and Samsung's smart TVs into surreptitious listening devices:

iPhones and other mobile phones are not the only common consumer appliances that this Order sets a precedent for converting to surveillance devices. Amazon distributes an appliance called the Echo that captures spoken voice.15 While Amazon designed the Echo only to send voice data to Amazon if it "hears" the word "Alexa," that limitation, like the iPhone passcode limitations, is encoded in software. Similarly, smart TVs, like those sold by Samsung, capture and transmit owners' voices in an effort to identify natural language commands and search requests. In responding to consumer privacy concerns, Samsung assured the public that TV owners' voice data would only be collected if the TV user clicks the activation button and speaks into the microphone on the remote control.

Again, like the iPhone passcode limitations, this privacy safeguard is a function of software. If the government is allowed compel Apple to change its software to enable decryption and forensic access here, will it also be allowed to compel Amazon to update the Echo, or Samsung to update its Smart TVs, to always collect some customers' conversations?

I know 1984 is a pretty stale literary reference for describing a terrifying surveillance state, and honestly I wouldn't be surprised if the clever people crafting this brief deliberately worded this section to remind readers of the always-listening gadgets surrounding the people in George Orwell's novel. But the CIT writers did a hell of a job.

You can read the full brief here:

Image: Flickr/Abner Dean "The Speakwrite"



    Siri is a snitch and Hey Google is a grass. Cortana caught ya.

    I think Judge Orenstein said it best re the Government being able to force Apple to unlock the phone etc.

    If the government cannot explain why the authority it seeks here cannot be used, based on the same arguments before this court, to force private citizens to commit what they believe to be the moral equivalent of murder at the government's behest, that in itself suggests a reason to conclude that the government cannot establish a lack of unreasonable burden.

    Last edited 04/03/16 11:57 am

      Do you actually understand what he said? There are so many compounded negatives that it is difficult to divine meaning from it. I think he is against it but it is hard to be certain.

    Ok, to be honest I'm not up to speed in depth on all the court wrangling going on. And while I certainly don't want the police to simply have carte blanche to my phone, how does this issue at hand really compare to the locks on your house, or wire taps on your phone.

    EG: if there was some kind of lock on wiretaps, where the cops couldn't get a wiretap on a phone without the phone company writing an unlock code, would that mean wiretaps in todays day & age wouldn't exist? Similar example with the locks on your house. The courts can issue a search order on a house which would become a legal search. But if the doors were locked by an encryption that required software to unlock, would that mean that search warrant's wouldn't exist?

    This in some ways seems similar. If the court can order a search on a house, why is a search on a phone any different?

    I do realise the slippery slope of having phones possibly able to be hacked/unlocked, but don't we live with that every day? Our house can be unlocked by someone other than ourself. Our car can be unlocked by someone other than ourself. Why should your phone be the one thing that no one at all can ever get into simply because it technically can be done by software? The gist is the same.

      When executing a search warrant, if the door is locked, the police just use a door breaker and get in. What they want is the same thing for the iPhone. The reason Apple don't want to do it, is that once the precedent is set, it's set and can't be unset. There is no way to prevent them using that precedent to force other vendors to do the same. And from there it's a short hop, skip and a jump to the FBI demanding manufacturers build in back doors for the FBI to use. And of course, once there's a back door, all it takes is someone to figure out how to use it, and everyone will know.

    1984!?! Seriously? Here's the big difference - in 1984 every citizen was forced to be under surveillance with no safeguards. OTOH, in this case all the same safeguards that prevent illegal wiretaps and other forms of invasive surveillance by the state are in place.

    If it worries you, just disconnect your internet when you are not actively using it. I do it to save power. My internet connection would only be active for an hour or two most days.

      There is a big difference only in that we are at the top end of the slippery slope that leads to the other end - a 1984 type reality. But that slide non the less is there, and it could be a well oiled slide. "weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!"

      As for the "safeguards" - that is where Snowden is so important. What is called "overreach" is actually criminal. Safeguards in terms of legality has now been exposed as laughable. Snowden exposed what was not legal to do - and was being done on the largest scale imaginable (ALL data being vacuumed up - stored and used at the will of security agencies / others). But no one is going to prison for these crimes because the law makers and security agencies are the ones committing them. In a lot of instances, security agencies are exempt from what governs the rest of us and those exemptions can be dangerously broad, but Snowden did reveal some level of illegality being carried out by authorities.

      the view that the internet is optional and you can just unplug is too simplistic.

Join the discussion!

Trending Stories Right Now