Decoding Apple vs. the FBI and Its Implications for the Future of Internet of Things

Congressional testimony is underway in Apple’s stand-off with the U.S. government over the FBI’s request for what the tech titan equates to a master key for its devices. The issues at hand are nuanced and complex, heated and divisive (and for most of us, difficult to discern) – a crucial test case of how far the government can go in forcing tech companies to help security and intelligence investigations. But more than that, it’s a transformative moment for the future of technology and encryption, says renowned legal scholar and technology guru Jonathan Zittrain.

In simple terms, the FBI has asked Apple to create software code that would allow government officials to hack the iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters last year. However, once this backdoor is opened for one device, argues Apple, it cannot be closed.

Zittrain – who anticipated Apple’s pushback before it made mainstream news with his article, “A Few Keystrokes Could Solve Crime. Would You Press Enter?” – explains the implications: if Apple loses the court case, the legal precedent could give the U.S. government broad authority to order companies to assist in breaking into encrypted products. But even a government victory could have unintended consequences for law enforcement, potentially prompting a wave of investment by tech companies in security systems that even their own engineers can’t access, says Zittrain, co-founder of Harvard University’s Berman Center for Internet and Society.

The case is a fast-moving story and its disposition is uncertain. Regardless of outcome, however, Zittrain’s perspectives on the case and the issues that surround it are important for all of us. It’s the latest in the “going dark” debate. The government fears it’s going blind: losing its ability to get its hands on digital evidence because end-to-end encryption scrambles messages for everyone except the sender and receiver. Zittrain and other top authorities don’t agree, and in a recently published and widely publicized report, say to doomsayers, “don’t panic” – there are more than enough ways for the government to gain access to the data it wants.

Encryption is on the rise, but so is the Internet of Things’ ever-expanding web of sensors, microphones and cameras that are embedded in today’s smart TVs and intelligent thermostats, networked security cameras and children’s toys, car dashboards and kitchen appliances, fitness bands and even light bulbs.

It’s essential to address privacy and security concerns on the Internet of Things before it becomes a default conduit for government data-gathering, urges Zittrain, who implies that manufacturers of smart devices may be focusing on convenience at the expense of security.

Apple versus the FBI is the most recent – and visible – reminder that we are hurtling toward a world in which a truly staggering amount of data is “out there” for the taking, and in the cases of government intervention, only a warrant or subpoena away. While Zittrain points out that the rapidly growing mass of smart connected devices presents potential to become a vast surveillance network, he also hopes to prod companies and policymakers into action to secure them.

You might be interested in more of Zittrain’s insights and commentary on Apple’s tug-of-war with the U.S. government, which has thrust the controversial issues of privacy versus security back into the spotlight. Read “Apple bites back,” a Harvard Law School Q&A with Zittrain, a Harvard Law and Computer Science professor, and cyber-security expert Michael Sulmeyer, and listen to Zittrain’s WBUR Radio Boston interview.

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