Texas Gunman’s Locked Phone Reignites Encryption Debate

Another locked smartphone, another garbage reason for demanding access, and another FBI screwup that made this all possible. Either the FBI is woefully incompetent, incapable of getting into a phone (let alone protecting this country from domestic threats), or they’re intentionally screwing up in order to create demand for a precedence that would let them destroy personal security. In the past, the FBI has stated that they’re more interested in setting up a precedence than getting into these devices.

Let’s back up, what are we talking about here? We’ll start by going back to December 2nd, 2015. That’s the date of the San Bernadino attack where 14 people were killed and 22 injured. This started a long and frustrating attack on personal privacy and even free speech from the FBI. The FBI was trying to get into the shooter’s work phone—an older iPhone 5c with reduced security—despite evidence that the phone had nothing of use for them on it. They botched their attempts to log in, preventing Apple from helping them to bypass the encryption by doing a backup to their servers, which they could then decrypt. After locking the phone themselves, the FBI then laid the blame on Apple, saying they should be forced to make a backdoor through encryption for law enforcement. However, this is a multifaceted problem. 1) Creating such a back door would destroy security on all smartphones, through precedence to force other manufacturers to create these backdoors and through leaks. The lack of encryption would put people in the U.S. in danger of having their phones stolen or hacked, would put people living under an authoritarian regime in trouble, women and minorities, especially, and it would hamper our ability to secure devices for politicians, diplomats, and other targets for hacking from foreign entities. (Of course, after Comey’s attack on Hillary Clinton during the election, maybe he was pro-Russian hacking all along.) 2) Forcing Apple to write software would be a violation of the company’s employees’ right to free speech. Software is protected free speech, and this would be the government forcing a company to create a worse product, something that should have horrified “small government” Republicans. It did—for the most part—not upset them, but, as the party leans more authoritarian than traditionally conservative, and with a few allies on the Democrat’s side, like Barrack Obama, such intrusions on individual rights are becoming more common.

In Texas, a man who shouldn’t have been able to buy a gun was able to do just that, skirting gun control laws due to Air Force’s refusal to enforce necessary gun control through accurate reporting. The shooter then took that gun and went to his mother-in-law’s church, killing many people inside. The FBI got ahold of his phone, botched entry again, and, despite knowing that the man was a domestic abuser with a history of violent and loosely targeted attacks, not a terrorist with a network or help, the FBI is still insisting that the just need to get into the phone.

The FBI’s starting to sound like a child begging for an expensive toy they’ll likely break on Christmas Day: “But please, U.S. citizens, can we please violate your constitutional rights and privacy?”

Why they don’t need to get in this phone

“When you shoot dozens of innocent American citizens, we want law enforcement to investigate your communications and stored data. There are things that we need to know.”

“As a matter of fact, no reasonable person questions our right to access the phone. But the company that built it claims that it purposely designed the operating system so that the company cannot open the phone even with an order from a federal judge.”

-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein

Rosenstein was suspiciously unspecific with his comment of “things we need to know,” though, in his defense, he was trying to not name Apple specifically, as you can see later when he talks about “the company that built it.” His statements are misleading in a number of ways. While it’s true, no one thinks the FBI shouldn’t be able to access the phone, we also address that there’s no way to both allow access to the phone, while still ensuring the protection of every other phone owner. If a backdoor is created that can be opened by a person, a government entity, or a hacker trying to do so, then none of us are secure. Once a backdoor exists, anyone can use it. It’s not that we don’t want the FBI getting into this phone, it’s that we don’t want anyone being able to get into anyone else’s phone.

“There’s a balance that needs to be struck between encryption and the importance of giving us the tools we need to keep the public safe.”

-FBI Director Christopher Wray

Wray made no mention of how this could possibly be done, seemingly referring to imaginary, magical tools that would allow them in the phone, but only for a criminal, and certainly not anyone else. Here in the real world, we know that the tools they acquire would leak, and every smartphone would become vulnerable, putting millions of people in danger of having their phone stolen, identities stolen, or being outed in a country for ideas, religion, or even their sexuality, which could put their lives in danger. Frankly, not even a wave of a magic wand would be enough allow the FBI into these devices without allowing anyone else in.

There’s another issue with the FBI’s plan: they know there’s nothing of importance on this phone, just like the San Bernardino shooter’s work phone. This man was deranged, working alone on a personal vendetta. In the past, he attacked his wife and child, was discharged from the Air Force (who didn’t prevent him from getting a gun, as they should have by laws that are often unenforced), and had conflicts with his mother-in-law. It was her church he entered and murdered innocent people, worshiping in what should have been their sanctuary. As he worked alone, and was able to buy his guns “legally,” due to government organizations not taking gun control seriously, and is now dead; there’s no investigation here. There’s literally no reason to get into this phone, so why is the FBI bringing up encryption again?

Crosses and stuffed animals left in memories of victims of the shooting. Photo credit: David J. Phillip AP

Because they know it’s an emotionally charged case. The FBI sees thousands of cases every year with encrypted phones. However, the devices are often owned by individuals who may have purchased or sold drugs. With many in the U.S. population believing our drug enforcement is often racially targeted and overly draconian, especially for harmless drugs like marijuana, these cases are not ones that would garner enough sympathy. However, a shooter is universally hated, with people across the political spectrum willing to do more to prevent it in the future. Liberals want to make guns more difficult for dangerous people to buy, by enforcing current laws as well as increasing restrictions on more deadly, near military-grade weapons, while conservatives are largely only willing to offer “thoughts and prayers.” However, with the argument of encryption, conservatives finally found a rallying cry: “take away our privacy and security, instead of our guns!” It’s a compromise they’re willing to submit to. Some less technically-inclined liberals with more authoritarian leanings when it comes to surveillance and privacy, such as former president Obama, were also willing to participate in forcing tech companies to create dangerous backdoors, making everyone vulnerable. The FBI knows this is the kind of case where people will want to do something, to change something so a tragedy doesn’t happen again, and, knowing that many people on the political spectrum will refuse to restrict guns, they’ve offered another option: give up privacy and personal security.

“Our team immediately reached out to the FBI after learning from their press conference on Tuesday that investigators were trying to access a mobile phone. We offered assistance and said we would expedite our response to any legal process they send us.”

-Apple PR

It’s clear that the FBI doesn’t really need to get anything from this phone, rather, they want to take advantage of people’s fears to grow their hacking arsenal (and the capabilities of our enemies, by extension). If they actually wanted to get into the phone, they would have responded to Apple, or at least gotten in contact with the company before the 48 hour window was up. Instead, they ignored Apple’s offer and didn’t reach out until it was too late. Apple could have helped the FBI get into the phone using Touch ID and the shooter’s thumbprint, though a dead limb is highly unlikely to work on Touch ID (according to Apple), fake fingerprints made from 3D printing with a small electrical current applied to them could potentially work. However, the FBI ignored Apple, and after 48 hours, Touch ID no longer works on the device. The FBI could have easily gotten into this phone, but they likely chose not to, likely to create the controversy and precedence they need to make every smartphone on the planet vulnerable to hackers.

Why this is dangerous


The FBI dropped their last case against Apple when it seemed obvious that what they were asking for was unconstitutional. It is unconstitutional for a government institution to violate a person’s free speech, as they’d have to do for Apple’s employees to force them to ruin iOS’s security. On top of that, they didn’t actually need to get into the phone, so if they didn’t get anything from the phone, the public would be very upset, and the outcry to close the security holes would be deafening. By dropping the case, the FBI managed to escape without setting a precedent that would prevent them from trying again in the future, likely with a case that would be more beneficial for them to get into.

For the same reason, they likely won’t pursue legal action this time, however they’re talking about this to sway public interest for the next time they need to get into a device. President Trump has sided with authoritarian views before, and implicitly stated that he thought Apple should be forced to create these backdoors through your security. Obama was on the side of the FBI, but not nearly as harsh on Apple as Trump has been. The FBI is trying to build up ammunition for a fight that they hope will happen sometime in the next 3 years, while their preferred candidate is still in office. Comey’s sabotage of Hillary Clinton may have had something to do with the encryption debate, as she sided with the American people, NSA, and tech experts on protecting security, whereas Trump wanted to give more domestic spying power to the FBI. While it’s unlikely that the encryption debate will result in a lawsuit this time, an attack on your security, privacy, and safety, is yet to come.


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