The FBI should calm down, there's little fear of the web 'going dark'
The idea that cyberspace is growing invisible to law enforcement isn't borne out by the facts, says John Naughton
Published 28/02/2016 | 02:30
The Apple vs FBI stand-off continues to generate more heat than light, with both sides putting their case to "the court of public opinion" - which, in this case, is at best premature and at worst daft.
Apple has just responded to the court injunction obliging it to help the government unlock the iPhone used by one of the San Bernadino killers with a barrage of legal arguments involving the first and fifth amendments to the US constitution. Because the law in the case is unclear (there seems to be only one recent plausible precedent and that dates from 1977), I can see the argument going all the way to the US Supreme Court. Which is where it properly belongs, because what is at issue is a really big question: how much encryption should private companies (and individuals) be allowed to deploy in a networked world?
In the meantime, we are left with posturing by the two camps, both of whom are being selective with the truth.
Apple is staking a claim to the high moral ground: this is not just about one phone, it says, but about the security and privacy of millions of citizens everywhere. Agreeing to the FBI's request to write a special version of the phone's operating system that would disable its in-built blocking mechanism against automated password guessing would set a very dangerous precedent that governments everywhere would exploit. True, especially in China, where, coincidentally, Apple sells more iPhones than it does in the US.
The FBI, for its part, is trying a two-pronged approach. One is the soothing tone: don't worry about a precedent, they say, we just want to get the data off this one phone.
The FBI should tell that to the marines, or at any rate to prosecutors all over the US who have iPhones that they want Apple to unlock. The Manhattan district attorney, to name just one, has 175 of the darned things. So if Apple is forced to concede in the end, it'll find a long queue at its door.
The other part of the FBI strategy is to also stake a claim to the high moral ground. FBI director James Comey has been sounding off for ages that cyberspace is "going dark" (or invisible to law enforcement) because of encryption and that this is intolerable.
This species of moral panic has a long pedigree, reaching back to the 1990s or earlier.
In the past, official fears about "going dark" have proved overblown. Is that likely to be the case now?
In order to find out, the Berkman Center at Harvard convened a group of experts to ponder the problem. The title of the report of their sober deliberations, Don't Panic, just about sums it up. Sure, the report says, smartphone encryption is a pain for law enforcement, but most online activity will remain unencrypted (and therefore visible either by surveillance or warrant) for two simple reasons: one is that some kinds of electronic data (for example, metadata) will remain unencrypted because networked systems couldn't function otherwise; the other is that "the majority of businesses that provide communications services rely on access to user data for revenue streams and product functionality." And the forthcoming internet of things will provide lots of opportunities for spooks to observe people without worrying about breaking encryption.
So the FBI should calm down: the surveillance-based business model of the web will ensure that the world won't go dark on them just yet.
Just to emphasise the point, an intriguing investigation by Cambridge University scientists published last week illuminated how the mainstream web is becoming hostile to even modest attempts by users to protect their privacy.
The researchers conducted a large-scale automated survey to determine what proportion of mainstream websites routinely reject or ignore access requests from people who use the Tor system to anonymise their browsing activity.
They found that, already, around 3.67pc of the top 1,000 sites do so. My hunch is that this proportion is likely to increase. The FBI can sleep easy in their beds.