The FBI’s legal showdown with Apple over iPhone security has spilled into just about every facet of popular culture, from endless news coverage to Congressional hearings and even to comments from President Obama. On Sunday, it got treatment from comedian John Oliver, whose weekly HBO seriesLast Week Tonight does a better job than most news shows covering the important news stories of the day.
In an 18-minute segment, Oliver brought the stakes of the fight front and center and explained in some of the most concrete terms yet why—contrary to the repeated claims of the Obama administration—the outcome concerns the security of mobile data everywhere. Not only that, but Oliver kept the whole thing highly entertaining while steering clear of lionizing Apple.
Think of the government as your dad
Putting to rest the FBI’s highly flawed analysis that the debate is about the security of a single iPhone belonging to slain San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizwan Farook, Oliver reminded his audience that law enforcement officers have a whole battery of other seized iPhones they also want unlocked. Compelling Apple engineers to develop a special version of iOS that bypasses safety features built in to Farook’s phone, then, is only the beginning. Or as Oliver put it:
There are over 175 other phones in line just in New York, so this is bound to set a precedent. Think of the government as your dad. If he asks you to help him with his iPhone, be careful because if you do it once you’re going to be doing it 14 times a day. And whatever happens in this case will have ramifications, because the FBI ultimately wants Apple and the entire tech industry to have its encryption always be weak enough that the company can access customer data if law enforcement needs it. So it might be the iPhone today, and an Android phone tomorrow, and a Blackberry the day after that, assuming that the day after that is in 1998.
The segment goes on to explain the vagaries of the antiquated All Writs Act of 1789 that the FBI says requires Apple to provide the crippled iOS firmware. It also schools viewers on the 1990s failed experiment with the Clipper chip, when Matt Blaze, now a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, showed how ordinary people could exploit encryption backdoors the Clinton administration had assured only law enforcement officers were able to use to unlock protected communications. Oliver also explains the Pandora’s Box that would be inevitable with the creation of a special iOS version that would be virtually impossible for Apple or anyone else to safeguard.
The host puts things nicely in perspective by explaining how Apple’s own marketing has contributed to some of the confusion in the debate. By comparing its designers to Einstein and Gandhi and praising even the most mundane iPhone features as major breakthroughs, he said, the company has created the impression that there’s nothing its engineers can’t do—even create a crippled version of iOS that can be used only by good guys and never by bad guys.
“For the record, there are lots of things we can’t do, even though we’ve been to the moon,” Oliver says. “For example, we are yet to master time travel or figure out why Hulk Hogan dresses for court like he’s a pall bearer at a boa constrictor’s funeral. Those still elude human understanding.”
No easy answers
While Oliver’s segment didn’t raise any new points, it’s an excellent summary of the technical and legal points in the case. And by fusing nuanced fact with cutting-edge humor—at one point he says the rose gold iPhone “looks like someone vomited a salmon dinner onto a dirty pair of ballet shoes”—he has likely helped a much broader base of people to understand the debate. Best of all, he does it in a way that makes it clear there are no easy answers.
“There is no easy side to be on in this debate,” he concludes just before launching into a mock iPhone ad that includes a hacker named Gary who likes to masturbate to “photos of your family.”
“Strong encryption has its costs,” Oliver says, “from protecting terrorists to drug dealers to child pornographers. But I happen to feel that the risks of weakening encryption, even a little bit, even just for the government, are potentially much worse. And even though I’m on Apple’s side in this case, I do think they would help both their customers and the government understand this a lot better if they were a little more honest regarding security in their ads.”
SOURCE: Dan Goodin | Ars Technica