Tuesday, September 21, 2021
Sept. 21, 2021

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Jayne: Issue much more complex than ‘Apple bad, FBI good’


Being painfully aware of my many limitations, it didn’t take long to realize that I am not smart enough to fully understand the kerfuffle between the FBI and Apple.

You know, the one in which the federal government has asked the technology giant to break into an iPhone. The one in which the FBI is trying to unearth secrets that might or might not have been left behind by terrorist Syed Farook after he and his wife killed 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif.

A judge has ordered Apple to write software that would allow the FBI to access the phone’s secrets, hoping to figure out if Farook had help in carrying out the attack. Apple officials, meanwhile, are seeking to have the ruling overturned.

The intricacies of the case and the technology involved and the questions of personal privacy vs. national security go well beyond the simplistic explanations provided by cable news or by presidential candidates. And while I’m not sure I comprehend all of them, I know somebody who does.

“Couldn’t be more clear. Apple is absolutely right on this,” wrote Eric Chown, a computer science professor at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. “There is no possible way in the world to design a system that only works for the government.

“One analysis I read put it this way — a backdoor that is open enough to let the government in is open enough to let the Chinese government in, hackers, etc. And even if you could design such an impossible system, our government has proven that its secrets are far from impenetrable.”

Chown, a college friend of mine, has a master’s degree in computer science from Northwestern University and a Ph.D. in artificial intelligence from the University of Michigan. If you want credentials that scream, “Hey, I’m really smart,” get a Ph.D. in something called “artificial intelligence.” All of which, for my part, demonstrates that’s it not what you know but who you know.

Anyway, I sent Chown an email when the FBI decided that the security of the free world rested on Apple’s willingness to break into an iPhone — an iPhone, mind you, that was used to change the password on Farook’s iCloud account after the phone was in the custody of authorities. As Chown wrote: “Also, it would appear that the handling of the phone was completely bungled by the authorities on the scene. If that hadn’t happened, then this wouldn’t even be an issue.”

Simplistic answers

But an issue it is, and in many ways it serves as a metaphor for the current state of politics. While Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have remained wishy-washy, all the Republican presidential candidates have sided with the FBI. Yes, the party of “small government” wants the government to have the ability to break into any iPhone or iPad any time it desires to do so. Because, you know, terrorism. Donald Trump even called for a boycott of Apple — and then sent out tweets from his iPhone.

Why worry about hypocrisy when the whole idea is to appear indignant while presenting simplistic answers to a complicated issue? Be it the economy or immigration or free college tuition, our electorate has demonstrated no desire and no ability to consider the intricacies and subtleties required to actually govern a country. All of which results in somebody like Donald Trump becoming a leading candidate for the presidency. All of which results in “Apple bad, FBI good.”

“Most of the informed tech world thinks that the FBI is just using this high-profile case to open the door,” Chown wrote. “Once it gets opened it will be pretty impossible to shut it again. In fact, there are plenty of cases where Apple has helped, it’s just that the FBI is asking for the wrong type of help on this case. And it would appear to be doing so deliberately to take advantage of the furor surrounding the event.”

Proving, once again, that the most simplistic explanations for a complicated situation typically are the most inaccurate.