The main segment of this week’s episode of Last Week Tonight deals with a pressing issue in our time: encryption. John Oliver examined the case with the FBI pressuring Apple Inc. into decrypting deceased San Bernardino killer Syed Farook’s cell phone. Apple is refusing to back down from the government, citing fears that weakening their encryption will make their phones more vulnerable to hackers as well as mass surveillance. Given our dependency on digital technology, Oliver’s segment exposes some crucial details that present just how complex the issue of encryption really is.
Last Week Tonight balances two sides of the argument over encryption: the pro-security vs the pro-privacy. In this case, the United States government represents the pro-security side of the debate while Apple Inc. represents the pro-privacy position. Now, pundits by definition engage in the logical fallacy of appealing to the extremes of both sides with no regards to the moderates in the middle. As such, pro-Apple pundits believe that national security interests will create an Orwellian panopticon society. On the other hand, the pro-FBI commentators will characterize the other side as threatening the state of our security. Meanwhile, Americans find themselves mixed on the issue of surveillance vs security, with more citizens opposing collection of data.
Oliver does not get trapped between the absurd extremes, instead presenting the complexity of both sides of the encryption arguments. He brings up how the New York District Attorney’s office would benefit from a pro-FBI ruling since they could then hack into the 175 cellphones they seized. However, he also brings up the various other downloadable apps that can encrypt text communication even if Apple were to cave into the government’s demands. Understanding the prevalence of encryption almost makes the FBI’s case of hacking a single cellphone a moot point.
Yet, as Oliver brilliantly stated last night, FBI’s dispute with Apple is “madly dancing on the lip of the volcano.”
While Oliver is not suggesting to protect privacy at the expense of all security, he is cautious about the potential dangers of the government weakening encryption even for “benevolent” purposes. For example, as the segment’s faux Apple commercial portrayed, should the government weaken encryption for the sake of security, it would leave user’s bank account information, emails, and texts even more vulnerable to nefarious hackers. After all, one of Apple’s main concerns as a brand is the prominence of online criminal activity brought on by their technology. Apple barely stays ahead of criminal hackers and to compromise their own security systems only allows the hackers to gain an advantage. Creating an key (or, as in this case, writing a piece of code to disable the memory wipe iPhone function) for the government would only increase the risk of potential danger even if it manages to prevent one.
Last Week Tonight suggested that undemocratic governments such as China and Russia would also benefit from weakened Apple security. To further bolster his argument, Oliver could have included North Korea as another undemocratic country who would benefit from weakened encryption, given their actions in 2014. Instead of leaking emails between corporate executives, NK could steal bank information from private citizens. In addition, cyberterrorists, foreign and domestic, would actually gain an advantage even if a few of their comrades are caught. For John Oliver, the good of protecting many phones from potential danger outweighs whatever good would come about in cracking the phone of a dead shooter.
In many ways, last night’s segment is a thematic successor to an episode last season in which he interviewed Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower who exposed the US government abusing their power by collecting the private information of citizens domestic and foreign alike. We will probably see the topic revisited in some form or fashion on the show given the cultural fascination and paranoia over the surveillance state.
In all likelihood, the case between Apple and the FBI will head to the Supreme Court, where the judges will be forced to rule on the controversial “Right to Privacy.” However the courts choose to rule, it will undoubtedly impact encryption laws that could either enhance our security at the expense of our privacy or maintain our current privacy laws. Given our current War on Terror, the rise of ISIS in the Levant, and the increasing advances in technology, this issue of right to privacy vs. national security is not likely to disappear anytime soon if ever.
Catch up on it here and check back next week for another recap.
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