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The economics of back doors

Todd Bell | Feb. 24, 2016
The debate between Apple and the FBI has become a major national public issue. The key component missing from this debate is the economic impact to US corporations and the US economy.

ACLU StingRay

The debate between Apple and the FBI has become a major national public issue. The key component missing from this debate is the economic impact to US corporations and the US economy.

The FBI versus Apple debate is about data at rest. We should not forget that the US government to local law enforcement agencies can already capture data in flight with our mobile devices. For instance, it has been well publicized that Harris Corporation makes a surveillance technology device called StingRay that can intercept your location, who you are calling, can record your conversation and capture SMS text messages.

The StingRay will simulate cell phone towers into tricking nearby mobile phones into connecting to them and revealing your private information whether you are a terrorist or not. Your data and mobile phone device information are going through this StingRay device and being stored for analysis with thousands of other mobile phone users. The StingRay technology can cost upwards of $400,000, but the US federal government funds most of the purchases, via anti-terror grants.

If the StingRay is not capturing data in your area, your cell phone provider (Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint, AT&T, etc.) is required by law to track every single phone call you make/receive and the duration of the call including your location data. In addition, your text message content may be retained depending on provider, including pictures, IP information, payment history, and service applications on your mobile device. The image above shows which states are using cell phone surveillance technology.

Let's set aside the FBI versus Apple debate and look at a broader economic picture. What we do know is the US government is asking Apple to fully cooperate with an ongoing terrorist investigation and is alluding to some type of a "backdoor" to allow the US government to access data at rest for Apple mobile devices and possibly other criminal cases as indicated by the NY Attorney General. Apple is a US-based company. The US government could force Apple to have a "backdoor" under the guise of "matter of national security" and permit the US government to access Apple devices "at will." If this did happen, this could be a financial disaster for US corporations selling any type of device that contains encryption technology.

If we look at other mobile devices, such as BlackBerry, this is a Canadian company and the CEO has gone to battle with the Pakistani government refusing to handover its encryption technology using the BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) for mobile devices. The Pakistani government wanted to decrypt the encrypted communications between a BlackBerry mobile device and BES to read contacts, email, text messages, applications, social media, pictures, etc. on a mobile device to fight and investigate terrorism.


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