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Public Survey-llance

29 February 2016 by Jenn Granger

Tomorrow, Apple’s battle with the FBI over access to data will take to the courts, but it seems that the British public isn’t actually that bothered about the government looking at its data. While there are some compelling arguments as to why Apple should just roll over and give the FBI access, here’s why it’s actually not such a great idea.

mass surveillance

The FBI wants Apple to create a workaround for encryption so that it can break into the iPhone of San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook and access his communications. Sounds kinda reasonable on the surface of it; it’s a fair price to pay to stop terrorism, right? According to a recent survey by pro-consumer website Comparitech, over half of Brits reckon so.

The problem is twofold. One, it sets a terrifying precedent. As Apple has said, once the ability to hack into an iPhone exists, what’s to stop another judge turn around and ask the same thing for a different case tomorrow, citing this case as precedent? Or from other countries with a slightly more lackadaisical view of human rights from using it willy nilly? Actually, forget other countries – the NSA and GCHQ track record isn’t so great either.

Two, there’s no such thing as a backdoor for good guys and not bad guys – if you leave your door unlocked, anyone can get in. As cryptographer Bruce Schneier said “You can leave your door unlocked if you want, but do locksmiths have to make lousy doors for everybody?

“Terrorists are eating at restaurants. Here’s my idea: ‘We’re going to poison the food at restaurants, they’ll eat it and die. What could go wrong with my plan?” So, from a tech POV, the FBI’s request isn’t really workable.

Other tech companies have been vocal in supporting Apple but some experts are saying that they’re fighting a losing game. David Cameron made a similar suggestion about weakening encryption last year in the UK and the final draft of Theresa May’s Investigatory Powers Bill (also known as the Snoopers’ Charter) is currently looming.

On the one hand, in light of all the publicity, the public are now much more aware of what’s happening to their data, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they care, apparently. The survey shows that 77% of UK respondents are willing for the government to have a look – but who decides where the line’s drawn, and how far acceptable usage extends?

For example, 44% of those that replied to the survey said they thought the government should be able to intercept comms relating to tax evasion, and 17% thought authorities should be able to listen if a parent was concerned about their kid.

There’s also the question of whether this kind of surveillance is even effective – privacy experts have said that mass surveillance creates a huge haystack of data in which you then have to find needles.

The survey also found that the UK is more comfortable being spied on than the US and Germany. Ric Tovum, senior analyst at Ovum gave a surveillance silver-lining, saying,“Leaving aside the historical and cultural explanations for this, the fact is that it puts the UK government in a better position to act against terror threats than many of its counterparts and, as such, means we should demand higher levels of efficacy from it in the war on terror. If the public is prepared to sacrifice its privacy in the name of protection from terrorism, the government can’t blame privacy laws for failing to detect a threat.”

Back down on earth though, the crux of the matter is that although this may sound like a good idea to some, what’s less obvious is what it would mean sacrificing. It’s up to the public to stay educated so that they don’t end up getting done over on things like the Investigatory Powers Bill – it’s important to maintain a balance, and unfortunately the vague wording of the current draft suggests it won’t be doing the public any favours. Watch this space.

What do you think – has Apple got the right idea or is it a being unreasonable?

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