By now almost everything that can be said about the Apple-FBI riff has been said. The FBI wants to open the San Bernardino terrorist’s iPhone and Apple’s CEO Tim Cook wants to secure iPhones everywhere. It is a defining struggle that we knew would eventually take place as the U.S. government (USG) deploys every counter-terrorism technique they can think of, and Apple deploys every privacy and security technique they can think of.
But one scenario has yet to be played out: The meeting between Saint Peter and Tim Cook at the pearly gates of heaven. The following is fiction, of course, but adds a new slant to the story of Goliath versus Goliath, to borrow characters from the Bible. What will each party say at the Pearly Gates? Will the real story ever be told?
The archangel Saint Peter casts a thin shadow over the unimpressive humanoid spirit looking up at him from far below. He addresses the spirit of Apple’s former CEO, Tim Cook: “Welcome to the Big Gate, Mr. Cook. I have but one burning question to ask, before passing judgment on you. Why did you refuse to hack into the terrorist’s iPhone when ordered to do so by the judge?”
“I had an obligation to protect hundreds of millions of iPhone users from the threat posed by big governments everywhere—not just the USG. Sir.” Tim Cook continues, “The iOS infrastructure is a monoculture, where a single vulnerability in one iOS is a vulnerability in all iOS’s.” He doesn’t expect the saint to understand technology, so he has watered his response down to a layman’s level.
This explanation is a mystery to Saint Peter. “But, the USG only wants you to jailbreak one iPhone,” his holy voice is stern. “What harm is there in writing code to bypass one iPhone, get the data, and then toss the revised iOS so no one can steal it?” The shadow engulfing Tim Cook expands and darkens, slightly.
The leader of Apple pauses and screws up his face as if he just swallowed a lemon. “Shall I list everything that is wrong with your position?” The shadow blankets the small human as he eagerly begins to explain to the big guy, “First, hacking this iPhone means hundreds of more requests will flood in as the precedent unleashes an avalanche of requests for other iPhones to be hacked into. Second, if bad actors realize it can be done, they will work tirelessly to do the same, and security across the globe will be threatened. We estimate it will take about 48 hours for someone else—a bad actor—to write code that bypasses iPhone security. Third, my company does not want to be known as a company that yields to frivolous government requests. What happens when some other government seeking to punish dissenters makes a similar request? On what basis do we refuse them? Fourth, we should not be asked to do work for any government without good reason and compensation, nor should we ever be asked to jeopardize the safety, security, and privacy of our users.”
Saint Peter replies, “Have you no compassion for the people killed in San Bernardino?” The shadow over the diminutive human spreads and casts an even darker shadow. It is a good question, of course, because the value of a human life is immeasurable. How far should we go to protect a single individual?
Cook answers, “Yes, of course, but I also have compassion for the millions of people impacted by this decision. What about them? How do I balance the lives of a handful of people with the lives of millions? What about consumer trust? What about Apple shareholders?” Saint Peter should understand relative morality. Everyone in California does.
“Your decision was rather sudden and rash, don’t you think, little human?” questions the gatekeeper. The heavenly light continues to dim as the saint speaks, his shadow engulfing the entire scene. This dark tide is nipping at Tim Cook’s heels as he seems to be losing the argument.
“Not really, your holiness. We were betrayed by the CIA when they illegally placed key-loggers on our phones and later when the FBI decided to go public rather than work with us in private. The intrusions became too much to tolerate, so we began to harden iOS, starting with iOS7 and then iOS8. It was the right thing to do even though it was difficult.”
The right-hand of God begins to ease up on the mere humanoid. Saint Peter offers his viewpoint, “In a parallel universe, a parallel Tim Cook decided to comply with the law. The parallel iOS8 and beyond had backdoors so the feds could open any iPhone they wanted under court order. As a consequence, the bad guys adopted their own black market strong encryption methods, bypassing the weaker versions shipped by your company. So, the CIA and FBI were back where they started.” This admission startles the CEO.
Tim Cook nods his head in vigorous agreement. “Exactly,” he exclaims. “We anticipated that move on the part of the bad guys in my parallel universe. That policy leaves millions in jeopardy while a handful of terrorists go undetected because they use black market tools. The FBI gets access to my information but not the terrorist’s data. They even get access to your data.”
“More the pity,” the shadow over Tim Cook shrinks only slightly. The veiled threat is lost on the saint. The two seem to have come to a stalemate.
“I have just one request of you,” Cook goes on the offensive. “I need divine intervention to hack the terrorist’s iPhone held by the FBI, because it takes a password to open and get its password. As you know, needing the password to get the password is a tautology, not to mention a paradox. Only divine powers can defeat the tautology. After all of these years, perhaps you can unlock the terrorist’s iPhone without writing new code, and save us the trouble.”
“I’m afraid you are on your own,” Saint Peter replies after a thoughtful pause. The shadow retreats only slightly. He motions to Mr. Cook to proceed down the path to his left and then yells, “Next!”