Apple and Tim Cook Defy the FBI—Too Little Too Late

Here's what to believe from the dude who bricked your phone.

Apple CEO Tim Cook addresses serious issues in “A Message to Our Customers,” an open letter he posted on his company’s site February 16, and that several people in your Facebook feed may have suggested you circulate as a status update.

The letter is Cook’s public response to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s request for an unlocked iPhone. Specifically, the FBI wants access to the mobile device of a domestic terrorist who killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California, this past December.

In his letter, Cook respectfully refuses to unlock the phone, just as if the FBI had wanted to switch the device from AT&T to Verizon.

Cook’s Message to Customers stresses that his principled non-cooperation with the federal bureau is due to Apple’s serious concern for the security of the people who buy and use the company’s products.

It would be easier to take Cook’s concern for Apple consumers seriously if incompatible power inputs didn’t force me to replace my charger with every cosmetically altered product iteration Apple rolls out, and if the company’s software updates didn’t occasionally render fully functional devices unusable, almost as if those updates had been engineered to inflict obsolescence.

Image via Simon Yeo/Flickr

Those quibbles aside, the history of tech giants siding with users to resist government intrusions is not a good one. Back in 2012, Twitter—fresh off its Twitter Revolution branding opportunity during the Arab Spring—announced it would implement country-specific censorship of content at the behest of foreign governments.

Twitter’s general counsel positioned the company’s censorship as “a good thing for freedom of expression, transparency and accountability."

Your cell phone is basically a tracking device that allows you to make calls.

Four years later, Apple’s Cook knows not to dip quite that deeply into doublespeak. He is subtle in asserting that a primary motivation in resisting the FBI’s incursion is Apple’s desire to keep your smart phone secure.

Honestly, if you believe that your smart phone is secure, you have not had the pleasure of talking to actress Jennifer Lawrence or any of the other handful of celebrities whose intimate photos were pilfered as if out of the clouds and splattered across the Internet’s leering face in the 2014 “Fappening” hack.

Beyond the embarrassment of your mom being given the opportunity of seeing you in full sexual glory, falling for Cook’s false presumption that your smart phone is secure could turn out to be a dangerous misapprehension. There are worse hazards than having data lifted from your gadget of convenience.

The Wireless Communication and Public Safety Act of 1999, signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton, effectively makes it illegal to market a cell phone in this country that doesn’t give the government an opportunity to pinpoint the location of the user of that phone.

Image via Justin Ruckman/Flickr

Your cell phone, as Boing Boing has pointed out, is basically a tracking device that allows you to make calls.

Cook’s rhetoric asks us to envision a world in which, “The government could … access your phone’s microphone or camera without your knowledge.”

Imagine your predicament, Cook seems to be saying, if he and Apple were not in place to save us from intrusive forces watching and listening to us without our approval through our Internet devices. Is it possible to imagine how that would feel?

Well yes, actually. Just ask Cassidy Wolf, Miss Teen USA 2013. Wolf’s computer was hijacked in 2013 by 19-year-old Jared James Abrahams. Abrahams used his control of Wolf’s webcam to film the pageant winner while she prepared for showers. He attempted to extort money from Wolf by emailing nude photos taken with her device. After his arrest, Abrahams admitted to having 30 to 40 “slave computers,” meaning electronic devices owned by other people that he controlled remotely.

Abrahams is not alone in his skill set. Three years ago, Yahoo was reporting on a specific subset of generally young, generally male computer hackers called “Ratters.” Ratters pride themselves on using Remote Access Tools (RATs) to infect and command personal electronic devices of unsuspecting innocents, the type of innocent who might have no clue that Tim Cook is offering to close a barn door long after the cows have had their private moments plastered all over the Internet.

In his “Message to Our Customers,” Cook lays out the roadmap to how the de-encryption tool would be developed. “In the wrong hands,” he asserts, “this software—which does not exist today—would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession.”

“All governments are run by liars, and nothing they say should be believed.” This proclamation goes double for corporations.

The fact that Cook communicates a clear path to creating the iPhone's backdoor indicates that, if not already on the drawing board, a prototype is not far from being mocked up.

Ratter kids, 19-year-olds, have the ability to puppet master dozens of computers at a time. What do you think highly trained, government-sponsored adult engineers employing those same sneaky arts can accomplish? The reveals of Edward Snowden and NSA whistleblower William Binney have taught us that the government operatives keeping eyes on us have vast resources in computer hardware and brainpower at their disposal. Would an agency with the reach and hidden agendas of the NSA ignore the potential of RATs? Unlikely.

Image via Michelle Tribe/Flickr

Cook asserts that Apple’s non-compliance is protecting us, the populace, from “sophisticated hackers and cybercriminals.” He pointedly refrains from specifically stating that we need shields from the government itself.

What goes unsaid is that every American, especially those who have observed the tactics and philosophical underpinnings of the war on drugs, has seen ample evidence that our law-enforcement professionals are as great a threat to U.S. freedom and liberty as are sophisticated cybercriminals.

Way back in the 1950s, investigative journalist I. F. Stone said, “All governments are run by liars, and nothing they say should be believed.” No one has proved Stone wrong. His proclamation goes double for corporations.

Everyone outside of Apple headquarters in Cupertino can only speculate on what is at stake for Apple in its push and pull with the FBI. The weirdest thing about this whole story is that the FBI would need Apple’s help to crack the code. Cook’s public airing of Apple’s talking points could very well boil down to some kind of bargaining tactic with government officials.

If Cook does do the right thing in responding to this FBI request—whatever that right thing might be—that decision will be based solely on what is the most advantageous thing for Apple.

Patching up our manifestly permeable phone security has nothing to do with it.