Privacy, Patriotism and PR – What consumers should know about Apple vs. FBI


On December 2nd of last year, a horrible terrorist attack occurred in San Bernardino, California. 14 people lost their lives, and the full motivations of the attackers and the extent of their premeditation are still partly shrouded in mystery. The answer might very well lie locked up in the iPhone of one of the culprits, giving the FBI an understandable urge to get their hands on its contents. Their unprecedented legal action to make this happen has sparked a heated online debate. In this debate privacy, patriotism and public relations are just some of the factors influencing a public discourse that has shifted to reflect new and often clashing attitudes towards encryption.

A Bit of Encryption History

The history of using codes to protect sensitive information is almost as old as civilization, with clay tablets being found in ancient Mesopotamia indicating attempts by craftsmen to encode trade secrets. The main function of encryption all the way until the mid-20th century though was to make sure military secrets didn’t fall into the wrong hands. The ancient Roman Caesar Cipher and the Enigma Machine being some of the most known examples.

The turning point for encryption which has lead us to where we are today occurred in the early seventies, with industrial espionage being the initial driver behind development of digital encryption. Early computing giant IBM formed an internal “Crypto group”, and their ominously punnish “Lucipher” cipher was eventually accepted as a national standard with the more technical name of DES. So initially, the U.S government was happy to enact encryption standards to protect business interests – now they are battling in court to wrestle back control of them from the companies that build them.

The Case of Apple Vs. FBI Explained

This curious legal case involves U.S government trying to set a legal precedent to whether companies are allowed to build a foolproof mechanism to keep anyone, including law enforcement from accessing devices. Globally, western governments with the largest intelligence-gathering machines have engaged in a passive-aggressive battle with Silicon Valley for a few years on this already. To draw a more analogue example of the issue, F-Secure researcher Sean Sullivan says:

“Say I live in an apartment building. Apple owns the building, but has designed the lock so even they can’t open it. Nobody can. Except me. And crucially, if they try to force it open, a booby trap will go off destroying whatever of value there is inside. The FBI is asking a court to require Apple to create a special version of this lock which they can then attempt to pick.”

In this case, Apple has built their system so it doesn’t have a copy of the key. It’s a secret, contained in the hardware of their devices. The FBI is asking Apple to create an altered version of iOS using Apple’s signing certificates, so they can better attempt to pick the lock without the booby trap going off. Apple is refusing, on the grounds that it would set a dangerous precedent where such requests would start coming in regularly. But their defiant stance is also a savvy business decision, since they can afford the army of lawyers to battle the courts, and taking this stance is giving them a tremendous PR boost.

Security or Privacy?

Governments claim having access to encrypted data is important in the name of national security, but it is completely unprecedented to force companies to write new software to weaken the security of their devices. This is compounded by the fact that FBI is using the All Writs act of 1789 as the basis of their legal case. This obscure federal law was created to give courts the power to issue “necessary and appropriate” orders, aimed at making court powers flexible but not tyrannical. The irony is not exactly subtle: using a law from 1789 to set a legal precedent in software encryption is like using the 1896 Locomotives act as basis to regulate commercial space travel.

This ideological boxing match between security and individual liberties is at the heart of the problem, and individual liberties are seemingly fighting a losing battle. Security is a much more tangible concept and a crowd-favorite among politicians, tilting the balance in its favor over a more idealistic and somewhat counter-intuitively less populist personal freedom. There is also a very sound question to be asked: if Apple caves in, where will this stop? Will all encryption eventually be forced to have legal circumvention tools, which can and probably will fall in the wrong hands? This will irreparably chip away at a vital cornerstone of digital freedom, which I can say with pride is the mission of companies like ours.

The underlying difference between stances of Apple and the FBI are the implications which the creation of such software would have on the future of encryption. Apple has its reputation and consumer trust to protect, while the FBI is understandably frustrated at not being able to delve deeper into a case involving domestic terrorism. Or as a cynic would say, Apple is in it for the money while the feds are in it for power.


The point is that everyone involved has their own agendas and intentions, which fall somewhere between shortsighted zeal, desire for power, clever PR-chess and well-founded idealism. We can’t say where privacy legislation is headed, but the burden of protecting one’s sensitive information and traffic from criminals, corporations as well as governments falls under the responsibilities of consumers. Thankfully though, the options to do so exist and are accessible to anyone with an internet connection.


More posts from this topic


The 5 Minute Guide™ to App Store Security and Privacy

Mobile devices have largely avoided the malware outbreaks that have plagued PCs for decades now for a simple reason -- app stores. Nearly all -- or even all -- the software that's on your phone or tablet now came through these official portals, where they endured some degree of vetting. But this doesn't mean it's impossible to have your security or privacy compromised by bad apps. Here's a quick run-through of the basics you need to know to keep the data on your mobile device safe and private. 1. Stick to the official app stores. If you have an iOS device, you can only use the official App Store, unless you "jailbreak" your device and take your security into your own hands. Android users, however, have more freedom. And with freedom, there's a little danger. "Anything ending in .apk might be malicious," Tom Van De Wiele, F-Secure Security Consultant, tells me. "So the official Google Play store is the only place you should get your apps." He offers a simple metaphor to remember this concept: "You don’t pick up shiny food from the street and put it in your mouth either, no matter what the promise is." In case you missed the point: The Play store is the clean table -- everywhere else is the grimy, filthy floor. 2. ANDROID USERS: Make sure to block downloads from "Unknown sources". "Phishing campaigns are focussing on providing .apk files to unsuspecting victims by email, SMS, MMS, Skype and other means," Tom says. He recommends you avoid these scams by blocking downloads from unknown sources. To do this, via iKidApps.com: Navigate to your Android phone’s home screen. Tap the Android "Menu" button. Choose "Settings". Open "Applications". Make sure there is no green check mark next to the Unknown sources item. If there is a green check mark next to Unknown sources, disable the setting. 3. ANDROID AND IOS USERS: Don't assume that your apps have been vetted for privacy. "It is not in Google’s interest to remove a lot of apps as they generate advertisement revenue for Google," Tom says, adding that the Play store doesn't do nearly as much vetting for malicious apps as the Apple iOS store does and instead opts for a “clean-up-as-you-go model." But that doesn't mean iOS apps are completely nuisance free. "Apple has the 'walled garden' of trying to control what they can when it comes to their application eco-system," he says. "This does not take into account apps that invade your privacy by asking you, for example if the app can 'access the address book', which will result in sending the contents of the address book to a remote location." You have to check the app permissions yourself to avoid these data-farming apps. 4. Look out for "bait ware." Both app stores have been plagued by what Tom calls "bait ware". These are apps "where the user is fooled into generating a lot of advertisement revenue by randomly popping up ads, fake buttons and other arbitrary functionality." New parents need to especially be on the lookout for these apps. "This is especially prevalent in baby and toddler applications which look very enticing to download and try but are merely empty husks with interwoven advertisement." Why do these apps prosper despite their dubious quality? Tom says, "Both Apple and Google are reluctant to remove them as it becomes a slippery slope on where to draw the line between sincere and malevolent behavior of an application." 5. "Walled gardens" aren't perfect solutions so check reviews and be suspicious of newer apps. Google's approach invites malicious apps to occasionally appear in its store. Often they're imitations or clones of much more popular apps. This is much, much more rare in the iOS App Store, but it has happened. To preserve your security, privacy and disk space, do some basic due diligence and check the reviews to see if they seem real and offer some substantive testimony that the app is legit. [Image by PhotoAtelier | Flickr]

January 17, 2017

5 Must-Read Online Privacy Articles from 2016

A great deal has happened within the online privacy sphere in the last 12 months. The subject has become a genuinely hot topic, and we have done our best to dissect relevant industry issues into an easily readable form while reporting directly from the eye of the storm, so to speak. Here are five essential reads to get you up to speed on the state of online privacy, VPN, and related topics. An Open Letter to Businesses who Block VPN on Their Wi-Fi Networks Ultimately, allowing the use of VPN on your Wi-Fi hotspot is your call. However, if you truly care about your customers, don’t be in the minority of businesses that forces them to give up their online security and privacy while browsing on your network. A Twitter user asked us a question that inspired our most viral article of the year, as well as the video response we produced as a follow-up. In the post and video, we emphasize the fact that companies end up shooting themselves in the foot by putting their customers’ security at risk. If you ever come across this consumer-unfriendly practice, we urge you to share the article and/or video! Read the full article here. How Does Encryption Work? “. . .It’s easy to forget that easy access to encryption greatly benefits even normal web users like you and me.” Our widely shared article on encryption exhibits a 360-degree view on encryption, providing readers with an overview of its history and a straightforward explanation of how modern VPNs ingeniously work to protect your privacy. If you’re interested in learning what’s under the hood of online privacy, this article is for you. 4 People Who See What Porn You Watch “A large majority of web users are lulled into a false sense of security by Incognito mode or private browsing, but this is only one of the steps needed toward becoming private online.” Many things take place “behind the scenes” on the Internet – these are things that we can’t see and therefore don’t think about. This admittedly attention-grabbing headline was meant as a wakeup call to the fact that adult content browsing histories aren’t as private as most people would like to think. Read up on a few people who have access to your porn browsing history, as well as some quick tips that can help prevent snooping. Privacy, Patriotism and PR: The Case of Apple vs. FBI “In this debate, privacy, patriotism and public relations are just some of the factors influencing a public discourse that has shifted to reflect new and often clashing attitudes towards encryption.” The Apple Vs. FBI case was the Clash of the Titans between privacy players that dominated mainstream news outlets throughout the first half of 2016, with ripples that are sure to affect the dynamics between companies and governments for years to come. We made a conscious effort to explore the issue from every possible angle, and the article is still a very relevant read. Why Do Newspapers Spy on You? “The longer something on the Internet is free, the harder it will be to make people start paying for it.” Who pays for a product that costs something to make but is free for the customer? In this article, we look at the idiosyncratic purchasing habits of modern web users and why these habits have lead news websites and other services to sacrifice their visitors’ privacy in order to stay in business. This piece is good food for thought for all consumers of online news.    

January 13, 2017

Mikko Hypponen: ‘Data is the New Oil’

"I believe data is the new oil," F-Secure's chief research officer Mikko Hypponen says. "And just like oil brought us both prosperity and problems, data will bring us prosperity, and problems." We're just beginning to understand how so-called "big data" is changing everything, even medical care. A new report from the Century Foundation reveals how the private information we share with practitioners gets anonymized and then mined. That information combined with metrics from search engines and wearables can then be melded for "predicative analysis" which is able to project behavior with “a surprising degree of accuracy," despite laws meant to protect medical privacy. Presumably these learnings could be used to make us healthier but they could also be used to deny us treatments or insurance coverage. And while we worry about government surveillance, many of us voluntarily share our thoughts, pictures and intimate details about our lives with Facebook, which then purchases more information about us from third-parties to make sure the ads we see are even more effective. Mikko has noted that Twitter connects our offline data to our profiles through our phone number. So when you share your mobile number for a proactive reason, such as activating two-factor authentication or account recovery, we're also feeding the data beast to make ourselves even more profitable to the sites we use. And then there's Internet of Things, which is coming into your home whether you like it or not. "You will buy whole appliances and you won't even know they are IoT appliances. I mean, you go and buy a toaster and there is an IoT feature... Why would you even need IoT features in a goddamn toaster?" Mikko asks. "But it's going to be online anyway. Why? Because it's going to be so cheap to put it online. And the benefits it creates are not benefits for you, the consumer, they're benefits for the manufacturer. Because now they can collect analytics." Our Freedome VPN team has found that when it comes to connecting with free Wi-Fi, people are willing to give up almost anything -- even their first born. Data. On one hand, prosperity and opportunity. On the other, problems and problems we haven't yet imagined. That's why controlling our personal information matters more than ever. Data Privacy Day -- held annually on 28 January -- is an international effort to get people around the globe to think about the importance of controlling what we share. To mark the day, Mikko will be doing a Reddit IAmA on the day before -- 27 January -- where you can ask him anything and our Freedome VPN team will be in the streets spreading the word about the importance of privacy. To prepare you can read Mikko's recent Q&A session on Quora and feast on this playlist of dozens of talks and interviews he's given: [youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JAChQaySECY?list=PLkMjG1Mo4pKIRUqHj1eUMDqvV5a0o2CoS]

January 12, 2017