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Is the Apple-FBI conflict all that it seems?

 6 min read / 

Of course, the FBI taking Apple to court in order to unlock the iPhone of the San Bernardino shooters is both worrying and shocking for a variety of reasons. Many Americans are understandably shocked at the very idea that the Bureau could even consider setting such a precedent that would be seen as a massive infringement of civil liberties and privacy. Furthermore, there is also the potential for hostile elements within the FBI to leak the requested information to hostile non-state actors even if Apple were to comply. Additionally, there is suspicion concerning whether the FBI already has the required technology which it may have obtained from other intelligence agencies. More interestingly, however, one should consider the fact that this is a classic case of incomplete, asymmetric information wherein what we observe from media reports is merely the face-value public signal. What, however, could this signal tell us when we clearly don’t know the full story? What possibilities can we discern from this signal and the accompanying incomplete, asymmetric information?

No-one would deny that either Apple or other tech giants have never voluntarily nor been forced to comply with intelligence agencies’ demands for national and international security. Nonetheless, for the FBI to go public in a case like this which, if won, is sure to have much of the public in uproar (especially in a country like the USA where people place far greater emphasis on civil liberties and privacy than many – if not most or even all – other countries) is rather strange (especially when intelligence agencies the world over have judges that are ‘sympathetic’ to their causes). Also, isn’t hacking an iPhone certainly a part of the National Security Agency’s domain? It would be ludicrous to suppose even for a moment that the NSA and the FBI don’t talk and cooperate on issues of national security since that is within both their remits (albeit via different methods).

If the FBI’s objective is national security, how wise is it to risk nationwide uproar (potentially even radicalising otherwise moderate people against the government) in exchange for potentially gaining insight into some lone Islamic terrorists’ networks and data? Given the theatric nature of the furore, doesn’t this give actual malicious actors the time to change their modes of communication to ensure information security to insure against risk? Something doesn’t quite add up.

Let us consider what might ensue amongst certain actors as a result of these theatrics. For a start, the signal seems to suggest publicly that the FBI does not have the requisite innate capabilities and/or personnel assets within Apple to carry this out covertly. This causes confusion and uncertainty with respect to the capabilities and motives of the FBI and intelligence agencies more broadly. This uncertainty, then, is not just limited to the general public but also to elements within intelligence agencies who are not privy to the extent of the FBI’s capabilities as well as potentially malicious actors (whether they be state-sponsored or otherwise). Thus, these theatrics introduce uncertainty with respect to their beliefs concerning information security and technology.

Of course, among these networks of potentially malicious actors (including potential infiltrators and informants in addition to external ones), there may also be scepticism with regard to this public signal. Hence, what ensues is investigation amongst these actors and, potentially, the use of assets that may have infiltrated or be conducting counter-espionage activities against the FBI and other intelligence agencies. By their very actions, these actors risk revealing themselves to the FBI and other intelligence agencies – especially if some assets and sub-networks are perceived to be expendable within the wider network(s) and are instructed to test the waters by using the communications technologies, changing their behaviour, emphasising counter-surveillance etc. so that the wider networks can conduct counter-surveillance to see if surveillance of these assets ensues (whether this be physically, digitally or otherwise). It also potentially breeds mistrust between various malicious actors if it is found that their information and intelligence is incongruent or suspect (whether that is known ur unknown to them), thereby further disrupting the capabilities of these actors.

Thus, a game of cat and mouse ensues that will be further complicated and made more intricate as details of the FBI-Apple case (alongside rumours) emerge throughout the mainstream media as well as within intelligence circles. The hope here is that actors revise their beliefs and act accordingly in what game theorists might call a sequential game of asymmetric, incomplete information. They thereby risk giving themselves away as part of the networks that the FBI and other cooperating intelligence agencies hope to gain greater knowledge of. Of course, given the sensitive nature of such an operation (if it exists), this would require selected trusted assets and agents to conduct such activities and, therefore, an extended period of time is required – possibly provided or at least initiated by this public, legal clash. The case, on this view, will conclude with pragmatism ruling the day in favour of the characteristically American spirit of guaranteeing, protecting and fighting for civil liberties.

Notably, Islamic terror networks may not be the main target of such an operation. A large number of state-sponsored cyber attacks against NATO (and the USA in particular) come from countries like China, Russia and Iran. iPhones are manufactured in China and there could be a security concern with respect to whether they have been tampered with before their export – China’s state-sponsored actors and agents from intelligence agencies will likely be more technologically sophisticated than their Islamic terror network counterparts. Indeed, one claim is that Apple’s 256-bit encryption is discarded after manufacture and remains unknown to Apple on the whole. Additionally, espionage and counter-espionage activities routinely consist in infiltrating large commercial firms that play a vital role in nation-states’ security infrastructure.

Thus, the public Apple-FBI conflict is perhaps a smokescreen or a red herring for something that is indubitably within their remit of preserving national and international security. Besides (probably) sounding like somewhat of a ludicrous conspiracy theorist, I hope that for those who took the time to read this article that it has helped allay fears of what this case could mean in terms of setting a precedent for information security – an increasing cause for concern and domain of risk-management in our rapidly changing socioeconomic and political environment. Of course, there’s a definite and substantial chance that I’m wrong; in which case, I am deeply concerned and anxious about the FBI not having the capability to hack into iPhones.

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