The launch of the new iPhone 6 late last month set a record for Apple, selling 10-million units in the first three days. In spite of the record-setting sales, it was not long before consumer enthusiasm for the new technology dulled with reports of alleged problems, including a potential for bending if sat on for long periods; a phenomenon quickly dubbed “Bendgate.” The release of the iPhone 6 presented another, more serious problem for a much different demographic: government snoops.
Rather than continuing to be the rope in a tug-of-war between consumer privacy and warrantless government requests for consumer data, Apple smartly took itself out of the game altogether. The techno-giant did this through its new iOS 8 operating system which Apple claims makes it not “technically feasible for [Apple] to respond to government warrants for the extraction of this data from devices.” Not surprisingly, Apple’s movedid not sit well with government officials who not only see surreptitious surveillance as their duty, but a right no citizen should have the power to impede.
The surge in technological innovation over the last few years has raised the stakes in this fight, highlighted by the recent Supreme Court rulingRiley v. California in which the Justices clearly noted the differences in searching paper files versus digital data. However, the federal government’s efforts to undermine the development and use of devices or programs (such as encryption keys) that protect citizens’ communications against government snooping, goes back more than two decades.
In 1994, for example, Congress passed the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), which forces telecommunication carriers and manufacturers to modify their digital communications platforms and hardware in order to facilitate the government’s ability to surreptitiously monitor communications made over those networks. The original version of CALEA, which pertained primarily to telephone communications, was expanded in 2004 to include internet traffic and VoIP services. Even this did not slake the government’s thirst for access to information.
In 2012, the FBI began pushing for even greater access to even more digital technology — messaging services and email — complaining that it was “going dark” because rapidly-advancing technology was making it too difficult for its agents to conduct electronic surveillance. Like CALEA, technology companies would be forced to build “back doors” into programing code to facilitate electronic eavesdropping; failure to comply with the rules would result in $25,000 per-day fines. The Obama administration strongly backed these new rules, but plans to present legislation to Congress were delayed after blowback from the Snowden-NSA revelations; still, the “going dark” mantra is repeated regularly by FBI officials.
Concerns with the current and proposed rules regarding access to digital data go beyond personal privacy. Infrastructure modification requirements — either to existing networks or to those being built — come with a residual price tag and compliance costs that consumers ultimately will bear. Moreover, as the Electronic Freedom Foundation notes, these rules give the FBI and other federal agencies “veto power over proposed innovations to the Internet in order to make spying easier.”
Not content to limit their efforts to legislation, the Feds also continue behind-the-scenes efforts to undermine methods of encryption as well as the ability of private citizens or companies to be able to encrypt their communications against the government.
Last September, ProPublica and the New York Times released a damning report about the NSA’s multi-billion dollar, decades-long war on private encryption. According to the article, based on more of Edward Snowden’s leaked documents, the NSA “deployed custom-built, superfast computers to break codes, and began collaborating with technology companies in the United States and abroad to build entry points into their products,” thereby making private encryption effectively useless at keeping the prying eyes of government out of digital communications. In fact, this has long been a goal of federal law enforcement agencies going back to at least 1994, when Uncle Sam proposed mandating use of the “Clipper Chip” to override private encryption. This illustrates clearly that no matter how much information government gains, it always seeks more.
The implications of the debate are far-reaching, especially as technology continues to advance, and the value of digital information transmitted across the communication spectrum increases. The leak of private photos of celebrities is but the latest example of how data security is intimately tied to personal privacy rights. Allowing government unfettered access to any data stored or transmitted digitally, which is its ultimate goal, permanently surrenders control of this information to anyone with this “back door” access – good guys, bad guys or simple voyeurs.
This is precisely what Ayn Rand foresaw and understood when she said more than half a century ago, “When you take away a man’s privacy, you gain the power to control him absolutely.” She saw the future and it is here.