The talk of the online privacy world this week is Apple’s vow to resist government demands to build a backdoor into iPhones. That’s ironic — and, for people who buy blindly into Apple PR, sad — since using an iPhone has long been one of the worst ways to stay private online. Here’s why.
Spurred by the shooting in San Bernadino late last year, U.S. government officials have ordered Apple to provide a way for authorities to break into iPhones and access data that would otherwise be theoretically secured by encryption. Public revelations of the order spawned protests and a letter by Apple CEO Tim Cook, who valiantly (or so it appeared) promised to side with users’ privacy.
If you follow online privacy news regularly, none of this should be very shocking. This is by no means the first time a government agency has tried to undermine encryption technology. As Edward Snowden revealed, the NSA was already hard at work, starting several years ago, in breaking the encryption protocols that are supposed to secure information exchanged over the Internet.
Plus, Apple, like every other major service provider, already cooperates with government subpoenas that require it to reveal user information. Providing a way for authorities to break into iPhones directly, without working through Apple, would give them incrementally more power. But cooperation between Apple and the government is hardly unprecedented. No one who uses an iPhone, or any other product or service from a major U.S. company, should assume that the company won’t give the government information stored on the product or service upon request.
Most important, iPhones are already rife with privacy risks. By default, they ship with settings that make it easy to track users’ physical location and monitor online activity. Siri can be used to steal personal information. And despite Cook’s big stink about resisting privacy attacks by the U.S. government, Apple apparently had no qualms about censoring information for iPhone users in China last year.
Of course, most iPhone users probably pay little attention to issues like these. They have not made major headlines in the way Cook did this week in his letter — which, in light of the deep privacy and censorship issues that exist in the Apple ecosystem, reads more like a disingenuous PR stunt than a statement of real principles.
The bottom line is that, if you are truly concerned about online privacy, you probably should not use an iPhone in the first place. If you do, complaining about the government’s recent order regarding Apple iPhones is like choosing to eat fast food every day, then being upset when you find out McDonald’s still cooks with trans fat.