Photos by Lukas Vrbka
The crowd of around 20 people queued outside the Boylston Street Apple store last week weren’t waiting to get their hands on a new gadget. Nor were they protesting Apple’s use of sweatshops as New York activists did in 2014.
Instead, demonstrators held banners shaped like iPhones that read #Don’tBreakOurPhones. They were backing Apple’s refusal of the FBI’s demand that the company unlock the phone of Syed Farook, the gunman responsible for the December attack in San Bernardino, California, that left 14 dead.
In short, Apple pledged to appeal a federal court decision ordering it to help the government bypass the encryption on Farook’s work device. In the time since, as Apple has moved to have the matter settled by Congress, a public coalition has formed behind the company. Activists are arguing that the government is asking for a “backdoor” into the iPhone—past the function that disables a device following 10 failed password attempts—which could have serious implications for civil liberties in the US and beyond, even crippling commercial encryption systems and potentially setting precedents for comparable cases.
The Boylston Street protest and other rallies like it nationwide were organized by Fight for the Future, a network of technology and free expression advocates. FFTF won a major victory last year in its work on net neutrality when its campaign for “public utility”-style regulation of the Internet gained traction in Washington, and in that struggle the group found itself at times on the same side as a number of major companies. It’s further evidence of the complicated politics of the anti-surveillance movement in which right-wing libertarians, civil rights advocates, anti-capitalists, and even major companies all jostle to enact their own vision of an “open Internet.”
These convoluted politics were all in play in Back Bay. The first protester to arrive described himself as an “Apple fanboy” and quoted Milton Friedman: “If you put the federal government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in five years there’d be a shortage of sand.” A couple of feet away, a young man with a Bernie Sanders button on his backpack explained that he hopes the Vermont senator remarks on the Apple case; Sanders, he predicts, would be “with us,” as he’s “more with the people than the establishment.”
And then speeches. An activist from the Massachusetts Pirate Party spoke out, announcing an upcoming workshop where folks can learn to secure their online communications. That was followed by Evan Greer, the campaign director at FFTF, who delivered a message that would be echoed over and over again for the next hour: This is a matter of national security and individual privacy, one that puts “all of our critical infrastructure at risk.”
In an interview with DigBoston, Greer reiterated that the Apple case was not about Farook’s phone alone. Instead, Greer stressed that a “backdoor can be used not just for this phone, but any phone”—a point fast becoming the center of gravity in the unfolding public debate. The FBI has described its request in narrow terms by arguing that its aim is not to “break anyone’s encryption or set a master key loose on the land,” as FBI Director James Comey Jr wrote in an open letter. Meanwhile, the Department of Justice has framed the issue as a Fourth Amendment warrant case in which Farook’s iPhone is as subject to search as any other personal effect. Both agencies hold that they are merely seeking justice for the victims of terrorism.
Kade Crockford, director of the Technology and Liberty program at the Massachusetts ACLU, directly countered such claims made by state officials in addressing the Boylston crowd. “Why is the FBI doing this?” Crockford asked. “That is the question. The FBI is doing this because it is cynically exploiting a terrorist attack and Americans’ fears in order to blow open a precedent that will change forever not just how the government engages with technology companies, but how technology companies engage with us.”
In speaking with the Dig, Crockford added that the case at hand “isn’t about whether or not Apple will comply with a search warrant, which is to say, to hand over information in Apple’s possession. It’s already done that. Instead, this case is about the government demanding that a court force Apple to act as a government spy. Apple does not possess the phone. Nor does Apple possess software that would enable the government to hack into the phone. The government is therefore not demanding that Apple turn anything over to the government, but rather that Apple write new software code to help the government crack open the phone. That’s completely unprecedented and creates an exceptionally dangerous future for cybersecurity.”
As Jenna Mclaughlin at the Intercept points out, state and local law enforcement have been notably less bashful than the feds in justifying the breaking of encryption, and for purposes extending far beyond terrorism to include all manner of crime. According to Crockford, “What the federal government is attempting to do is set a precedent that would allow very low-level officials—local prosecutors, local police—to use the exact same maneuver in investigations about marijuana.”
Take Boston, for example. BPD Commissioner William Evans eagerly backed the FBI in speaking with reporters. Jake Wark, spokesman for the Suffolk County District Attorney, told the Wall Street Journal that while the office had not yet brought a case involving an encrypted phone before a judge, the DA “can’t rule that out. It may be a question of finding the right case.”
Though Wark said that his office doesn’t keep a specific tally of cases involving encrypted phones, the spokesman confirmed that the DA has “more than 30 state-level cases” that involved encrypted phones with evidence it could not access (and that it presumably hopes to access).
Wark said eight of those phones are linked to homicide investigations, while the remainder involve sexual assaults, shootings, and “other cases.” Asked if the district attorney has an interest in accessing that encrypted evidence, Wark replied, “Whether it is a car trunk or safety deposit box, when a judge approves access legally that is the end of the story … the evidence within is made available to law enforcement, and we would expect same with the phone.”
The Apple store war was only one theater in an ongoing multilateral battle. For Crockford and others, Massachusetts officials are responsible for innumerable “problematic,” “if not unconstitutional,” technological policies and outright wasteful fails. On the day after the Newbury Street demonstration, the state’s Joint Committee on Transportation held a hearing on the use of drones in Massachusetts, which have thus far been allowed to fly with few restrictions.
As for the fight for the future at hand, Greer and Crockford agreed, “This isn’t about one phone, it’s about all phones.”