Thinking on cyber privacy through Apple vs. FBI case

Thinking on cyber privacy through Apple vs. FBI case

Recently, Apple refused a federal judge’s order on Feb 22 for providing FBI with a patch that helps to unlock iPhone 5C 1)Apple vs. FBI: What’s Really Going On?. FBI requested the patch for unlocking an iPhone of a criminal who involved in a shooting case that 14 people died. Technically, every iPhone is encrypted with a unique key derived from device ID and four-digit user password, and iPhone erases its memory by discarding the key when incorrect passwords are fed for 10 times. What FBI wants is a patch for removing the 10-time limitation so they can try all 10,000 possible passwords.

President Barack Obama indirectly revealed his thinking on this issue.2)Here’s What Obama Said at SXSW About Apple vs. FBI

Before smartphones were invented and to this day, if there is probable cause to think that you have abducted a child, or that you are engaging in a terrorist plot, or you are guilty of some serious crime, law enforcement can appear at your doorstep and say we have a warrant to search your home and can go into your bedroom and into your bedroom drawers to rifle through your underwear to see if there’s any evidence of wrongdoing.

His speech represents classical view on the negotiation between privacy and safety. As he mentioned, governmental authority is already allowed to eavesdrop your phone or search your home when you are a suspect of serious crime. This may harm your privacy but still seems reasonable because (1) it guarantees both privacy and safety for innocent people, (2) it worked for many years in real world, and more importantly, (3) monitoring majority of common people is physically impossible.

Unfortunately, this may not work in cyber world. First, one monitoring method can be widely applied to many people. Particularly in this case, FBI will have a power of unlocking any iPhone if Apple provides the patch. Second, monitoring target group can be easily extended by scaling out the number of machines for monitoring. We can think of restricting the use of monitoring methods by making laws, but it still does not guarantee our privacy. For instance, British spy agency illegally eavesdropped phone call, Facebook access, web record and e-mails of innocent people over the world 3)GCHQ taps fibre-optic cables for secret access to world’s communications.

This is not just a personal privacy issue but also an anonymity collapse issue. Anonymity plays important roles for modern democracy by encouraging people to express various political opinion, protecting people from physical threat, and separating opinions from prejudice on their speaker.4)Pros/Cons of anonymity in a modern democracy However, anonymity will be gone if an authority with powerful monitoring power can identify and characterize any common people by their cyber life.

In summary, real world privacy protection philosophy is not sufficient to prevent Big Brother in cyber world. One way of protecting cyber privacy is giving people the perfect control of their own online privacy. People should be able to decide online information to be protected, and it should be protected in technical way so it cannot be violated by any authority.

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