The FBI and NSA are not fans of the new iPhone 6. Unlike previous iPhones, the iPhone 6 encrypts emails, photos and contacts using a code created by the phone’s user that Apple says it won’t keep. Though calls and texts can still be intercepted in the traditional way, data pulled off the phone will be gibberish that cannot be decoded without the user’s code. At a news conference, the FBI Director said this technology would allow people to hold themselves above the law. Another intelligence agency official warned that: “terrorists will figure this out”.
The government scaremongering is not justified. Think of it this way: a smart phone is just a traditional phone combined with a computer. Before smartphones were invented everyone had two devices—a phone and a computer. The phone would make calls and send texts, which could be intercepted. The computer would store emails and photos, which could not be accessed remotely by the government. Like the iPhone 6, computers were sometimes encrypted, and the only way the government could get encrypted data off computers was to either crack the encryption or order the owner to enter the passcode.
Through legislative omission, government agents in the U.S. and Canada have been able to remotely spy on computers now located in our phones. To pretend, as the government does, that loss of this new power will leave them unable to fight crime, displays its small institutional store of memory. Law enforcement can still access encrypted content on phones in the same way it did with computers: by getting a search warrant, seizing the device, and ordering the owner to unlock it. This is just like the old days fellas, you know, the 1990’s. A suspect who refuses to unlock their phone could face criminal contempt of court charges.
The FBI has asked Congress to act to ban encrypted phones, but given the unpopularity of the NSA wiretapping program, one wonders whether such legislative change will be forthcoming with midterm elections approaching.