How One Bad Apple Case Could Hurt

| Chris Finan
Chris Finan
CEO, Manifold Technology

The court order demanding Apple create an encryption-breaking tool was never about a single iPhone.  A disclosure in a federal court yesterday revealed that the Justice Department has made at least nine similar demands to Apple.  Officials in the department have sought to convince the world that this case is about gaining access to a single terrorist’s device, even going so far as claiming that Apple’s concerns are part of an exploitive “marketing strategy.”  But the facts suggest otherwise.  This case is about broad precedents, both technical and legal, and the world is watching.  Compelling the development of a general encryption-breaking tool will weaken the nation’s data security as well as its economic security.

Quite simply, how this case is resolved will determine whether American companies, including startups like mine, will remain free to build 100% secure products to empower their users in the U.S. and overseas.

In a famous 1981 advertisement, Steve Jobs wrote that Apple was committed to “increasing social capital by enhancing individual productivity” in its effort to distribute American technology to the world.  In the 35 years since that ad, the company’s business model has remained fundamentally consistent with that same notion of individual empowerment.  And what could be more empowering than having the tools to keep your private information secure?  Strong data privacy controls have become an integral part of Apple’s products for precisely this reason.

In that light, the Justice Department’s attempt to apply pressure with inflammatory court filings and unsealed orders designed for public consumption is blatantly hypocritical.  It is itself a sham marketing strategy that seeks to exploit the emotional anxiety from a terrorist attack and is unbecoming a democratic institution.  The department’s comments dismiss legitimate concerns rooted in Apple’s core values and global business model, demonstrating a remarkable lack of appreciation for the many equities at sake in this case.

Nearly half of Americans and millions of people around the world own iPhones.  We pay good money for Apple’s products because we believe they uniquely empower us to live richer and more productive lives.  By all accounts the company’s values and its CEO’s authentic beliefs provide the foundation for its model.  This is what has made Apple so successful.  Their marketing is a genuine reflection of their products, culture and values.  They are fundamentally linked and to undermine one is to undermine all.

The technology underpinning the security and privacy guarantees that Apple extends, as part of its empowerment proposition, is also a vital link in the chain.  Apple has sought to engineer its products with robust encryption that ensures each individual can maintain sole ownership of his data.  In an environment where many of us now use our phones to access bank accounts and store sensitive personal information that hackers would love to steal, the idea that you can buy a device that is inaccessible to anyone but you is a powerful selling point.  If it is called into question the entire value proposition falls apart.

Encryption is like any technology; there is no way to ensure that only good people can enjoy its benefits because encryption is either perfect or nonexistent.  There is nothing in-between.  Like a car windshield, any little chip will eventually become a gaping crack, which is why Apple is so adamantly refusing to weaken the security of its iPhones by creating the software tool that the court is demanding.  It would be like drilling a hole into a windshield.  Or in this case, creating a general tool that anyone could use to break into any iPhone.  The general applicability of this tool is what makes the implications of this case so far-reaching.  There is no way to ensure it is only used to get into the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone.

If the U.S. government is able to compel Apple to create this encryption-breaking tool, other governments are sure to use the precedent to demand tools of their own.  The impact this would have on Apple and other U.S.-based companies would be economically catastrophic.

U.S. companies have had to commit significant resources to gain access to markets like China to sell products secured with encryption.  These hard fought gains would be upended if the Justice Department prevails and establishes a precedent for other governments to demand backdoor access.  And the economic impact would reverberate well beyond Apple. 

Numerous U.S. companies, including many startups, are pioneering practical advancements in encryption that leverage the same empowering benefits to create new classes of products.  One example, blockchain technology, is making financial services more efficient and secure by creating cryptographic records of transaction activity.  Global banks around the world are increasingly coveting blockchain technology, with American companies poised to lead the way.  The perception that U.S.-built encryption technology can no longer be trusted would hobble these companies in the global race to establish market leadership. 

This is not a theoretical problem.  The startup that I founded with another former government security official provides blockchain technology to enterprises globally.  Our model is similar to Apple’s in that we seek to empower our customers by providing 100% secure products that they control.  A ruling against Apple will absolutely make it harder for us to convince our overseas customers that they will have complete security.  It would put our entire business at risk.

Apple had reportedly been cooperating to help FBI investigators gain access to the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone before the Justice Department went nuclear by going public and demanding a general tool that could break into any iPhone.   Demanding a general capability raised the stakes so that this is no longer about a single phone.  To undermine one is to undermine all of us. 

The Author is Chris Finan

Chris Finan is CEO and Co-Founder of Manifold Technology, a Silicon Valley-based startup that provides high-performance blockchain infrastructure. Chris previously led business development for Impermium, a cybersecurity startup that was acquired by Google. Prior to that, Chris was the Product Director for Plan X, a Department of Defense cyber warfare research and development program at DARPA. Chris previously served in the Obama Administration as the Director for Cybersecurity Legislation and... Read More

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