Early in the FBI vs Apple hoorah some Federal factotum used an analogy that he believed to make the government’s position unassailable.
He said “what if there were a safety deposit box that was thought to have vital evidence in it that would be of great use in apprehending some dastardly entity. There could be no doubt about the right of the government to get the key to that little vault from the bank that was renting the box to the dastard; our request to Apple is identical.”
Between then and now I was certain that someone would have attacked and dismembered that analogy.
I thought that because like most, or perhaps all, analogies it limps.
This one doesn’t just limp; it is nearly crippled.
So I was sure someone would have pointed out that, as with most unassailable cases proffered as proof of viewpoint these days (“gay marriage will destroy the ancient institution of marriage” – that’s begging the question: offering as proof that which bears proof) using a limping analogy as proof of the proposition that Apple must break open just one iPhone for the government would be challenged.
Sooner than later.
But no one has.
Challenged the proof.
So I will.
A safety deposit box is a generic thing.
The key that opens the box is a unique thing.
If the unique thing is surrendered to a third party for use, the only violation of the uniqueness of that thing occurs with the use of that thing by the third party. Unless the third party duplicates that unique thing and offers the duplicates for sale on eBay that unique thing has only been violated by one third party, in the case of this example that third party being the government which has presumably gotten legal orders to authorize that violation.
That is a neat open and shut case.
All other users of safety deposit boxes are free from concern about violation of their security because they each have unique keys; their only exposure is in the case of the government singling them out individually for violation of their unique security.
An iPhone is a generic device.
The security code of an iPhone is a unique device, conceived and implemented by the user of the iPhone.
If the terrorist who conceived and implemented the security code on the iPhone in the currently being discussed hoorah were alive the government could have ordered that terrorist to give them his security code.
But the terrorist is dead.
And that leaves Apple next in line for the fury of the government.
But Apple doesn’t know the security code so ordering Apple to give the government the security code wouldn’t accomplish much.
But the government could get around that.
The government could rig up some neat little electronic contrivance that would spew four digit codes at the iPhone until it cried “uncle” and opened up.
Except that Apple has thought of that.
If you hit an iPhone with more than 10 wrong codes it erases itself.
We call that security.
And Apple prides itself in selling security as a component of its products.
Not so fast, said the government:
“We want you – Apple – to one time only allow this third party – us (the government) – to open that iPhone. It’s just like a safety deposit box. Who will be the wiser? Who can object? Who can get hurt? It’s just like a safety deposit box.”
But they are not asking for the unique key to the safety deposit box – the four digit security code.
The government is asking for the security of the iPhone.
That security is a generic thing.
It is not unique.
That security is the same across all iPhones.
Once surrendered to one third party that security is up for grabs to third parties of all and sundry stripes.
And therein lies the limp in the analogy in the case of the government vs Apple.