High Stakes in the Apple vs. FBI Face-off

by Alan Goodman and a team Revolution/revcom.us writers | March 21, 2016 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


In early February, a federal court in California ordered Apple to comply with a demand from the FBI that Apple help bypass the security features of an iPhone. The FBI claims that the phone may contain crucial information in their investigation of the murders of 14 people in San Bernardino on December 2. Apple has so far refused to obey, saying that “the implications of the government’s demands are chilling” because of the potential expansion of the government’s “power to reach into anyone’s device to capture their data.”

The phone in question is an iPhone that was used by one of the alleged shooters involved in the terrible outrage in San Bernardino where 14 were killed and 21 injured—people at a holiday gathering of different nationalities and a wide range of backgrounds. Apple said it has already cooperated with the FBI and provided all the information associated with the phone that it can access, including data from the phone on Apple’s online cloud server.

However, like other iPhones in recent years, this phone’s contents are encrypted and a four-digit password is required to access that information. One of the security features on the phone is that after 10 incorrect password entries, all the data on the phone is completely and irreversibly erased. This protects the phone from attempts to unlock the phone by “brute force”—using a high-speed computer to try millions of combinations of find the right one. Apple itself does not have possession of these passwords and cannot access them.

What the FBI is now demanding, through the federal court, is that Apple create a new version of the operating system that drives the iPhone so that the security features can be bypassed and the phone can be hacked. The FBI claims that they would only use this newly created operating system in this one case for this one phone.

In a public “Message to Our Customers” on February 16, Apple CEO Tim Cook responded to the FBI’s false assurances:

“In the wrong hands, this software—which does not exist today—would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession.

“The FBI may use different words to describe this tool, but make no mistake: Building a version of iOS [Apple’s mobile operating system] that bypasses security in this way would undeniably create a backdoor. And while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control.

“Some would argue that building a backdoor for just one iPhone is a simple, clean-cut solution. But it ignores both the basics of digital security and the significance of what the government is demanding in this case.

“In today’s digital world, the ‘key’ to an encrypted system is a piece of information that unlocks the data, and it is only as secure as the protections around it. Once the information is known, or a way to bypass the code is revealed, the encryption can be defeated by anyone with that knowledge.

“The government suggests this tool could only be used once, on one phone. But that’s simply not true. Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices. In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks—from restaurants and banks to stores and homes. No reasonable person would find that acceptable.”

In other words: The FBI is lying, and people should not believe what they are saying. And let’s be clear that FBI isn’t just acting on its own. It is part of the Obama administration’s Justice Department, so there are larger forces at the top who are behind the FBI’s push against Apple.

There is also a dangerous legal precedent involved in the FBI’s federal court case against Apple. The court order for Apple to create a new operating system was issued under a law from the late 1700s called the All Writs Act, which says that federal courts can issue “all writs necessary or appropriate in aid of their respective jurisdictions and agreeable to the usages and principles of law.” A “writ” is a written order, and this Act gives courts authority to issue orders compelling people and entities to do certain things as long as that order itself is lawful.

If Apple is forced under this Act to obey the FBI’s demands, what else could the FBI or other government agencies, acting through the federal courts, force Apple or any other entity or individual to do? In a brief in the current case, Apple noted, “If Apple can be forced to write code in this case to bypass security features and create new accessibility, what is to stop the government from demanding that Apple write code to turn on the microphone in aid of government surveillance, activate the video camera, surreptitiously record conversations, or turn on location services to track the phone’s user? Nothing.”


Almost three years ago, Edward Snowden—who had worked for a decade inside the “intelligence community” at the National Security Agency (NSA), the CIA, and the Defense Intelligence Agency—came forward to blow the whistle on the massive, illegal, and illegitimate surveillance that the U.S. has been carrying out on phone and Internet communications of literally billions of people, in the U.S. and around the globe.

Snowden’s revelations shocked and outraged the world, and raised big questions: What is the U.S. government doing getting all into the private business of countless individuals? The U.S. government launched a furious retaliatory attack, accusing Snowden of “betraying his country” and charging him with felonies under the Espionage Act, which could land him in prison for a lifetime. Snowden now lives in exile in Russia.

At the same time, the exposures by Snowden and the angry reaction around the world forced the U.S. government to take some public steps, like ending NSA’s direct “bulk collection” of phone data of people in the U.S. But NSA can still get that data through a warrant or a court order to the telecommunication companies—such requests by the government are routinely granted by the courts. And overall, NSA and other intelligence agencies have continued their spying on people in the U.S. and around the world.

And now, the FBI’s current demands against Apple are part of an attempt to further strengthen the government’s ability to grab up information about individuals and groups—including by trying to gain some kind of a “back door” to get around encryption that makes it harder for the government spies to get their hands on information.

Some encryption engineers at Apple have reportedly vowed that, if the FBI wins the court case and Tim Cook and Apple agree to comply, they would rather quit their jobs than be forced to carry out the order to create the new software. People like these software engineers and others in the tech community and beyond should understand that Tim Cook represents the positions and interests of a certain section of the U.S. bourgeoisie—the capitalist-imperialist ruling class. This is the class that owns the major means of production—land, factories, technologies, etc.—and exercise control of the state and rule over society on that basis.

What is going on in the FBI vs. Apple fight reflects divisions within that ruling class over how to approach the question of encryption, among other issues. Those like FBI Director James Comey—and the Obama administration and others—are aggressively pursuing the strengthening of the intelligence and law enforcement agencies’ abilities to penetrate encryption on phones and Internet activity—arguing that not doing so would harm U.S. interests. And then there are others—including Cook and Apple, but going way beyond them to powerful forces in the ruling class—who argue that pursuing such back doors into encryption would actually harm U.S. “security” interests.

Tim Cook notes that Michael Hayden, a former director of the CIA and NSA (who, as director of NSA, installed and still defends the program that collected phone metadata from millions and millions of people around the world), supports the view that strong encryption developed by U.S. corporations like Apple should be protected and that the government should not be given a back door into encrypted phones and communications. Other former high-level intelligence agency officials also put forward this position. In a recent interview, Hayden argued that the “overall health of the American computing industry” is a “far more strategic advantage to the security mission” of the U.S. than “any specific tactical operational transient advantage to the security mission” gained by limiting encryption. Hayden also says that if companies like Apple are forced to hand over a “key” so that the U.S. government has a way into the encrypted data, then other governments and groups and forces could also use that same “hole” to hack into the information.

It is important for those who oppose the repressive moves of the government to understand such differences at the top of this class society—but it is deadly to get drawn into the terms and framework of the debate among the rulers. Central to that framework is that both sides of the ruling class debate argue their position on encryption—and the larger issues concerning the ability of the U.S. to spy on people here and around the world—is in the best interests of “national security.” By “national security,” what they mean is protecting the security and promoting the interests of the U.S.capitalist-imperialist system.

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Now, these rulers say that what they are up against are forces and powers that threaten and harm U.S. interests and “Western values,” including fundamentalist jihadists. So, they declare, it’s necessary—and in the interests of all the people—for the U.S. to have strong military and intelligence forces (even as there is disagreement over how best to achieve this).

Let’s be clear: Islamic jihadism is not a radical alternative to the nightmare created by capitalism-imperialism. They actually enforce—and aim to spread further—oppressive relations that keep people in chains, and life under their rule is a horror that no one should want. But if we look at things historically and on a global scale, these jihadists pale in comparison to the U.S. and other imperialists who are responsible for mass murder, destruction, and terror on an exponentially more vast scale against the people of the world.

This is a system that thrives on a planet of slums and sweatshops—grinding up countless millions of lives, including small children, as part of its daily workings. Even if there may be some “environmentally conscious” CEOs or government officials, the very workings of capitalism-imperialism mean that this system is hooked on fossil fuels and compelled to continue spewing greenhouse gases, threatening global environmental catastrophe. It’s a system that keeps women, half of humanity, in millennia-old chains, facing violence and degradation in different forms... whether in the villages of India or the high-tech workplaces of Silicon Valley. And Apple, one of the largest corporations in the world, itself plays a major role in all of this. The rulers of this system order murderous drone attacks on wedding parties and villages thousands of miles from U.S. borders while imprisoning their own population at a higher rate than any other country. They bring down the hammer of repression and terror against legitimate protest and opposition that endanger their hold on power in any way.

All this and more is not driven by concern about the “safety” of the people in the U.S., much less people in other parts of the world. This system of violent oppression and exploitation is fundamentally against the interests of the vast majority of people. That is why the rulers of this system see billions of people—in the U.S. and across the world—as potential threats to their power. And why, even as these rulers go on and on about democracy and rights, they are driven to build and maintain a vast network of spying and surveillance—as part of a bourgeois dictatorship that maintains the rule of their class over society.


Edward Snowden talks during a simulcast conversation during the South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Festival on Monday, March 10, 2014, in Austin, Texas. Snowden, who has been granted temporary political asylum in Russia, is the former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor and Central Intelligence Agency employee who boldly and with great conscience released thousands of classified documents exposing massive government spying, surveillance, and monitoring. The room for Snowden's video conference was overflowing, as were two other Austin auditoriums where the talk and interview were shown. He was given a standing ovation by the SXSW audience. Photo: AP

Part of what’s behind the opposition by Tim Cook and Apple to the FBI demand also has to do with their corporate interests. An important part of the “selling point” of iPhones around the world is that these devices have better security, making them more protected against hacks, than other types of smartphones. After the Snowden revelations, Apple made changes in the iPhone operating system so that, in its own words, “Unlike our competitors, Apple cannot bypass your passcode, and therefore cannot access this data.”

Cook frames this opposition in the language of civil libertarians. But whether or not he himself sincerely believes that he is fighting for civil liberties, Cook and his board of directors (or any other heads of capitalist enterprises) do not make decisions on that basis. What ultimately drive their decisions are the interests of the capitalism-imperialist class. Cook and Apple’s stand against government snooping has hardly been steadfast. Up until the FBI demand that Apple create a new operating system to hack into an iPhone, Apple had complied with FBI requests to turn over available information on the phone. In a recent interview with Time magazine, Cook said that if Congress passed a law requiring Apple and others to provide a way around encrypted phones, he would comply. And if the federal court decided for the FBI in the current case and ordered Apple to obey under threat of huge fines, it’s likely that Cook would obey.

While Cook and others are fighting for their class interests—which, again, are antagonistic to the fundamental interests of the great majority of people—there are many others in the lower levels of the tech industry as well as millions of iPhone users around the world and people more generally who are justly outraged by these latest attempts to expand government surveillance of personal communications. These are people who also have opposed the massive NSA spying exposed by Edward Snowden and the government’s unjust, repressive attacks against him. The secret government documents leaked by Snowden revealed activities by the U.S. government that shred basic rights that are supposedly guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and basic to “what America is about”: just for starters, the Fourth Amendment, prohibiting unreasonable or warrantless searches of people, property, and documents; and the First Amendment, which claims to guarantee freedom of speech and the press, and the right to protest.

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To be clear, these rights exist under a system of brutal exploitation and oppression, and serve the needs of a predatory empire that had brought down incredible suffering on billions of people across the globe. And when they feel their power is threatened, these rulers openly bring down the iron fist of their dictatorship—as they have shown repeatedly through the history of the U.S. But, at the same time, it is not good for the masses of people when the state moves to move the “norms” of society in a more fascistic direction, and the government’s attacks on rights should be opposed.

So even as Apple, driven by the dictates of profit and expand-or-die competition with competitors, is part of the global network of super-exploitation... the federal court order against Apple to obey the FBI is outrageous, and everyone who stands against the system’s assaults on the rights of people should oppose it. Even as the terms of struggle among those at the top around this fight are around how to best pursue the interests of empire, it is against the interests of the people if the FBI and the Obama administration are able to force Apple to cave in.

Broad numbers of people are deeply disturbed by what’s going on in the world today, including the increasing government intrusions into people’s lives—and there are those who are being compelled into resistance in various forms against the crimes and outrages of the system. But what most people do not know is that there is a radically different—and much better—way society can be organized. The Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America, by Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, is an inspiring vision and a viable, concrete plan for such a society. Among the whole range of questions addressed in this Constitution, in the context of a society moving to end all exploitation and oppression throughout the world, is the basic rights of the people—giving a much more expanded and liberating vision of this than what exists today, while scientifically addressing the sharp contradictions involved. We will write more on this in the future in Revolution—but the Constitution and other works by Bob Avakian are available online at www.revcom.us and in printed form.

As people fight together against the government’s insidious attacks on people’s rights, including their attempt to coerce Apple into opening a back door into encrypted phones—we invite everyone to get into and wrangle over this inspiring and viable vision of a society on the road to real human emancipation. And to check out and become part of the movement for an actual revolution that is needed to get to that new society.



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