Posted on Feb 19, 2016 by Rick Falkvinge

Apple vs Government Surveillance: As warned about for years, government is now asserting a right to succeed in wiretapping

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In a case in San Bernadino, USA, courts have ruled that the government has a right to succeed in wiretapping an old iPhone, and is requiring Apple to help out. We have warned about this for years: the ubiquitous governmental ability to attempt a wiretap is going to be mistaken for a right to succeed in such wiretapping. We’ve now arrived at the dangerous point where courts agree.

Starting in the early 1990s when the government attempted to ban strong encryption, and continuing through the Clipper Chip debate in the mid-1990s, the various attempts to contain open source, and the current fantasies of a “golden key”, the government has consistently tried to keep strong encryption out of the hands of the masses.

The concept of a golden key is nonsense, of course. The notion that one government can keep such a key to itself and keep it out of the hands of the other 191 governments and everybody else is ludicrous.

By now, we know that this government – not one, but all of them, actually – have taken themselves the right to wiretap everybody all the time. Or at least, the right to attempt a wiretap on everybody.

We have therefore warned for a number of years that it’s only a matter of time before said governments mistake their technical ability to attempt a wiretap on everybody for a legal right to succeed in wiretapping everybody all the time. We’ve warned about this for years, and the day has now come. Actually, it’s worse: the executive branches of governments have had this delusion for some time, but it’s been contained by other, saner parts of government until now.

Translated into analog terms: if you have a safe at home, and the government has a search warrant for your home, the government has a right to attempt to open that safe of yours through orderly and destructive means. However, the government doesn’t have some kind of right to succeed in those attempts to open your safe.

What’s new in the San Bernadino case is that the courts agreed to this outlandish assertion. There are three branches of government, intended to keep each other in check. For the first time, the judicial branch agreed with the runaway executive branch in that the executive not just has a right to attempt wiretapping anybody at will, but it has a right to succeed in its attempts to do so.

This is shocking, atrocious, and dangerous. Fortunately, Apple is doing the right thing and basically asking any and all parts of government demanding such a thing to take a very public hike. It’s hard to see how they could have chosen any other course of action and kept the trust of their customers – which hasn’t prevented a lot of other companies from doing that exact wrong thing in this situation, and going out of business shortly thereafter.

This rabbit hole of eroding privacy doesn’t end here, however. Don’t ever think it can’t get worse. The next step, once governments have asserted a bizarre right to succeed in wiretapping, is to assert a right to also understand what they’re wiretapping. Speaking in code? Even speaking in a foreign language? Forget about that.

Of course, such repression is going to be made to sound like a government service.

“Welcome to the Telephone Service. Your friends at Homeland Security today understand English, Spanish, and French, and you may select from all of these languages for your conversation today, even switching languages mid-conversation. If you wish to converse in Arabic today, press 9 now, and an agent will assist you in person shortly. Thank you for helping make America safe.”

Think that’s outlandish? All of today’s surveillance was outlandish just ten years ago. There’s no point the government will stop at to keep control of the narrative, to know exactly what ideas are coming from where and going where. It may not happen to the telephone network as illustrated, but don’t take for granted it won’t happen to more modern equivalents on the Internet.

This is about controlling the power of narrative, which is the strongest power you can hold in a society. We’ll be looking more at that and why the government is scared of losing it tomorrow. (Teaser: the first time a government lost the power of narrative, it lead to 200 years of civil war across the known world.)

Privacy remains your own responsibility.

About Rick Falkvinge

Rick is Head of Privacy at Private Internet Access. He is also the founder of the first Pirate Party and is a political evangelist, traveling around Europe and the world to talk and write about ideas of a sensible information policy. Additionally, he has a tech entrepreneur background and loves good whisky and fast motorcycles.

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  1. nope

    This isn’t about wiretapping. Apple can’t wiretap.. only service providers can do that. Completely separate issue from what’s going on with Apple. This is about accessing stored and secured data. Different legal provisions.

    2 years ago