There was this headline in the news this week: that Apple has refused a court’s directive, which asked them to provide help for the FBI with unlocking an iPhone owned by a person who was involved with the terror attacks that happened in San Bernardino, California in December 2015.

Apple has rejected that.

In A Message to Our Customers, Apple’s boss Tim Cook explains that Apple was just as shocked as the public about the terror attack in San Bernardino. And he also declares, in this message, that Apple has made as much help available as possible to support the FBI in this investigation case.

In the court’s order there was a request to build a back door into Apple’s operational system, so that a third person (in this case the FBI) can access the data on this iPhone. Apple saw in this a potential danger. If there were such a possibility, it could no longer be ruled out that someone else (in the worst case: terrorists) could also access the data on the phone and misuse that data for their own purposes.

Do exceptions confirm the rule?

It‘s a moral dilemma.

On the one hand, there is this topic of countering terrorism – which is used as the means for bringing this case.
On the other hand we are facing one of the basic pillars of computer security.

Everybody who is even slightly knowledgeable about computer technologies and data security knows, that such a back door cannot just be opened with the snap of a finger, and then closed again. Data encryption doesn’t work like that.

Encrypted data of a system can be made visible with a code only. That’s its basic idea, and that’s the foundation of all techniques. Opening a back door here would mean to implement an emergency doorway. Every single device would have such an emergency doorway then, and could be accessed by it.

Here, the dimension of interference becomes visible.

It’s not about an exception.
The case is being used to get a key to all iPhones. The term “back door” is kind of a belittlement that doesn’t do the reality justice. There are no back doors in cryptology. Cryptology is very digital. It is either 0 or 1.

For this reason we need to ask this crucial question:
Can we allow the end that justifies the means?

We don’t know what we don’t know

Admittedly, it is not easy to approach this topic. The public tension is noticeable after the revelations of Snowden, Manning and Assange. These three used it as a means to an end; each in their own way.

The question that has been spiraling through cyberspace ever since, is how much of our personal information, how much of our daily data, is being collected and stored? The fact that we don’t receive transparent replies, or that people have to go to court to receive truthful disclosures about the data collected about them, does make one wary.

I remember the open letter from Julie Zeh, in which she asked Angela Merkel for an appropriate strategy to deal with the demands of the digital age.

One of its issues was about the protection of personal freedom in this age of communication. Angela Merkel chose not to answer to this public letter, but since the affair of her wiretapped mobile phone (it was the NSA), we all know: she does care, a little at least. “Eavesdropping among friends” is, after all, a no-go.

There is a difference

There is a difference.
There is a difference between not being willing to respond, and not being able to respond.
There is a difference between not being willing to act, and not being able to act.

To bridge this span – communication could be of service.
If this is being “forgotten”, the doors and gates are open wide for interpretations and speculations.

A wanted lack of transparency doesn’t create a climate of trust.

 

What this is really about

Obviously, many people have a desire to protect their data from being accessed by others.
Only in rare cases is this an issue of paranoia.

It is about the right of privacy.

Privacy is not some grey area. Privacy is black or white. You either have it or you don’t.
Julie Zeh has the right to ask these questions publicly. Angela Merkel has the right to remain silent to this public letter from Julie Zeh.
The court in California has the right to request that Apple helps the FBI in their investigations. Apple has the right to refuse because of undue burdens.

Both cases are very different and concern two different societies. But there’s something that unifies them: both cases are about digital security and individual rights.

These two commonalities are facets of something bigger:

Sovereignty.