When Big Brother Isn’t Watching, It’s Someone Much Shadier

The unique aspects of living in our technologically soaked 21st century world are covered every day in the news, but these days there is one tech-based story that is impossible to ignore. The ongoing game of moral tug-of-war between the FBI and Apple over an iPhone used by one of the suspects in the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California late last year continues to elicit discussions about the sacredness of privacy in a world where oversharing has become commonplace. At hand are (at least) two opposing viewpoints. First, that national security trumps the issue of individual privacy – the position held by the FBI, who are in need of help in breaking into the iPhone in question. Second, there exists the notion that a person’s privacy must be respected, and that allowing for government intervention in one case could potentially invite precedent for future cases, effectively destroying the sanctity of any information we store on our phones. However, these two positions are somewhat shortsighted in their assumptions, and leave another, perhaps more terrifying trope than the government’s all-seeing eye, a la Big Brother. Surely, the thought of the government having the ability to access information stored on our smartphones is scary enough, but there are also hackers – some of whom operate with tremendous malice – who could and already are accessing our most private data.

big brother

In a recent article for Tech Crunch entitled “Apple’s best defense against the FBI is the one it can’t share publicly,” writer Min Pyo Hong details what may prove to be a driving force behind Apple CEO Tim Cook’s very public decision to refuse the FBI’s requests for help in bypassing the security measures on that iPhone. More than just a noble, admirable desire to maintain the privacy of his consumers, Cook’s rebuff of the government’s plea for aid may in fact be related to something much more dire – “[t]he iPhone already has backdoors Apple hasn’t yet closed.” In simpler terms, a backdoor refers to an opening in a system’s security which allows for unwanted, harmful, and malicious entry, such as a hacker. According to Hong, Apple is likely already aware of such entry points in the iPhone’s operating system, and keenly aware that “black hat hackers” (a hacker who violates computer security for little reason beyond maliciousness or for personal gain) have managed to crack the code at least once. “black hat hackers have been able to extract data from an iPhone with a recent OS by directly accessing it through critical flaws that enable a backdoor into, and data extraction from, a designated device,” writes Hong. Finding and selling such vulnerabilities is a lucrative market, and so once discovered, they are often “secretly kept in reserve, to use as a potential cyber weapon against Apple down the road,” which leads to why Apple may be so reluctant in creating an entry point in the phone’s system for the FBI’s use. 

“Apple has said that creating a backdoor for the FBI would put iPhone owners on a slippery slope of security intrusions. It is more accurate to say that the iPhone has been careening down that slope for quite some time,” argues Hong. “[M]any foreign governments have long been secretly working with black hat hackers to create unauthorized backdoors into the iPhone, usually without Apple’s knowledge or control, seeking the ability to access documents of officials from rival governments,” a point that brings the national security versus personal privacy issue to an international consumer base. But in the United States, where the FBI is so publicly vying for the ability to bypass the strictest security measures on something as ubiquitous as an iPhone, it’s possible that we’re on the verge of a free-for-all for hackers. “With so many trying so hard to access the iPhone already, an FBI-ordered backdoor will only assist their efforts. Once created, black hats will surely increase their attacks on the FBI and Apple, hoping to ferret out clues to this entrance route. It is almost certain they will eventually succeed,” Hong posits.

But these all sound like issues only involving governments and megacorporations. Or do they? Whether or not one feels that an invasion of privacy is totally acceptable if it means preventing a terrorist attack, the fact remains that most – an overwhelming majority – of Americans rely on their phones for the storage of private, valuable, and secure information related to our professional, personal, and financial lives means that this issue applies to us, too. Hong warns us about being apathetic, saying “A majority of Americans understandably assume the U.S. government’s demand for a backdoor is a reasonable request to make us safer from terrorist attacks. If they understood how profoundly insecure and under threat all their devices already are, I believe their thinking on the topic would instantly change.”

Do you feel secure?

Related: The FBI Needs Apple’s Help Fighting Terrorism. Should the Tech Giant Give In?