By Susan Chang
The Center for Media Justice recently organized a phone briefing of the recent Apple vs. FBI court order controversy, encouraging activists of color to join Apple in defending our privacy rights.
Last week, the FBI requested Apple to provide assistance in accessing contents of the San Bernadino shooter’s iPhone. A federal judge ordered Apple to comply with the request, but Apple’s CEO Tim Cook explains in a letter to customers why Apple is challenging the FBI’s demand for “backdoor” software.
Harlan Yu, Principal Technologist at Team Upturn, discussed at the briefing the technical reasons why the FBI’s ruling has dangerous potential beyond just the San Bernadino case. While the FBI is asking for the software to gain access to only the shooter’s phone, Yu says, the FBI could ask again and again for the same kind of invasive software, but for other phones. This effectively means that Apple would be able to unlock any phone that the FBI asks for.
It is interesting to note that Congressman Ted Lieu, who is one of only four people in Congress with a Computer Science degree, also sides with Apple. His sentiment is that “weakening our cyber security is not the answer”.
Additionally, all software used on Apple devices must be authenticated with Apple’s special signature. The FBI is asking Apple to use that signature.
But Neema Singh Guliani, Legislative Counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union, says that the FBI is essentially taking away Apple’s ability to use the signature for their own business purposes and for good. Guliani believes that this is not only a violation of the Fifth Amendment, but also has First Amendment implications. She discussed the other legal implications of the case. What the FBI is asking for in this case and the legal theories being presented go beyond the San Bernadino case, Guliani says, and can be used by police departments across the country to get private companies to turn over information in phones in a wide variety of cases, including the investigation of activists and drug cases and minor misdemeanors.
Rashad Robinson, Executive Director at Color of Change, expands on why that last point is the reason the broader communities of color, especially activists, should be concerned about this case. Encryption is especially important for people on the political fringes, including activists and protesters in racial and social justice movements and organizers. As a result, Color of Change is concerned about this case.
Color of Change, from its website, “exists to strengthen Black America’s political voice” through the use of the Internet, email, phones, and face-to-face meetings. The use of email and phones for communication is how social and racial justice movements close the gaps that prevent communities of color from amplifying their voices.
When rulings like this happen, Robinson explains, not only is the power of our voices jeopardized, but they also open the door to unchecked police surveillance. Communities of color are more vulnerable to predictive policing.
Predictive policing is the “usage of mathematical, predictive and analytical techniques in law enforcement to identify potential criminal activity”. Racial profiling is one of those techniques. . If the FBI is successful in their court ruling, then police departments across the country could argue that they should be allowed to access the phones of anyone who is likely to commit a crime. Guliani echoed this point in the briefing.
Apple filed an official response on Thursday to the case, asking the court to drop its ruling. In the meantime, there is a petition going around to assist Apple in halting the FBI’s efforts to undermine citizens’ digital security and privacy.
Other panelists in the briefing include Joseph Lorenzo Hall, Chief Technologist at the Center for Democracy and Technology; and Ross Schulman, Senior Policy Counsel at the Open Technology Institute.
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