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Pondering the Apple/FBI Clash
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UPDATE 2/20/16:  PC Magazine is now reporting that the request by the FBI is more complicated and deep than simply allowing the iPhone's password to be guessed more than ten times; the understanding by which much of my rant below is based on.  According to the new report, what really happened is that the password had already been attempted too many times, or, has somehow otherwise triggered the iPhone's 'reset' mode by either the FBI or the San Bernardino County workers trying to assist them.  So, it appears the request truly is about building something new after all - something to 'undo the reset' perhaps.  This also explains a fundamental question I had about why the company could not simply intercede to reset the device's password.  Apparently they might indeed have, and botched it.

My position on the FBI/Apple spat is that I completely advocate the establishment of what I would call an 'artificially maintained' ceiling of privacy moving forward in the digital age.  Before smartphones and the interwebs people had ways to maintain privacy by default. Information was handled in analog form, on paper, over copper, and in-person, all by default . To use 1970s telephones as an example, all without the miracle of encryption, people could 'erase' their conversation by simply ending the phone call and hanging up the phone.  That was it.  Once the line was dead the conversation could not be played back nor could investigators 'recover' any bit of that conversation under ordinary circumstances.  Yes, a tap could be placed on the phone, if that was merited for some reason, or, perhaps one of the parties themselves might take steps to record the conversation using their own equipment (a la Nixon).  But these were 'you do the work and get the clearance' efforts.  Nobody just snapped a finger and recovered information as a given otherwise.

This has all changed such that in order to live and function today we must now by default give in to digital conduits that are capable of tracking and revealing everything about us.  Collection of our work and thoughts is increasingly the default process now; so much so that one is almost suspicious about people who avoid technology. Thus, if we believe there is a value to knowing there is a zero-recourse option for retrieving the things we say and do in the digital world, it makes sense that some effort by someone, tech companies or others, seek to 'fake' a boundary that everyone can trust will never be breached.  In this regard I support Apple's position.

That all being said I'm a little surprised by Apple's argument in this matter that once something - a technique - is created it effectively ends the protection against it forever.  I believe people would agree with that concept in general but on this point they might disagree that Apple would really be inventing something new.  If I understand what the FBI is requesting correctly what's being asked for is a simple code change that tells an iPhone, and just one in this case, to disregard repeated attempts to guess a password rather than deleting its content after X tries (10 to be precise). In so accommodating, the FBI would have the subsequent freedom to try a brute force password-guessing marathon on the phone until, one day, some script hits on the right password. I am not sure people would characterize such a change in the code as 'something new' and ominous because the code driving iPhone is malleable by its very nature. The 'technique' Apple is avoiding introduction of to the world is 'in the world' already as malleable lines of computer code. Hence, while this effort to maintain an in-penetrable ceiling is probably spot on all right, the reasoning is a little vulnerable, as put.


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