Computers, Privacy & the Constitution
All eyes are on Apple as it takes on the US government in possibly the highest-profile fight in privacy and technology. Posing as a defender of civil liberties and customer privacy, Apple is vociferously defying a federal judge’s order to assist the FBI in its investigation of an alleged terrorist’s iPhone. Under its rationale, a loss to the US government in this case would lead to a dangerous precedent of Apple compromising its own security system and “undermin[ing] decades of security advances that protect [] customers”; assistance to the government would be equivalent to creating a “master key.” Furthermore, such a move would not only jeopardize security concerns vis--vis the American government and people, according to Apple CEO Tim Cook and other Apple officials, but create a watershed loss of security for those living under authoritarian governments. If the United States courts could compel security compromises, what is to stop Apple from being forced to cooperate with surveillance-happy governments such as Russia and China?

Thus Apple is poised to stand as the unwavering and uncompromising defender of privacy rights around the world. Particularly with regards to foreign markets, Apple’s hardline stance seems to suggest that the security of their products is of the utmost concern.

However, a closer look at its dealings with foreign governments, in particular China, reveals a history of willing compromise on the part of Apple’s offerings. The evidence undercuts Apple’s posturing with the US government, and exposes Apple as a shrewd business that shifts its stance in order to gain market share. More optimistically, Apple’s lofty values in this case could be contrasted starkly with its eagerness to work with authoritarian regimes across the world, and this juxtaposition could be leverage for global consumers to demand the same expectation of privacy and security as its American consumers are led to believe they deserve. The debate could ironically force Apple to unwittingly become a true defender of security and privacy.

Apple first entered the Chinese market through its 3G iPhone in October of 2009, after lengthy negotiations between the company and state-owned telecommunications operator, China Unicom. Shortly thereafter, Apple introduced a 4S phone specifically modified for Chinese sale: a phone with a chip allowing it to adhere to China’s then-mandated WAPI standard. This technology was China’s alternative to wifi, which utilized a different brand of encryption whose code was undisclosed due to concern over “state secrets.” WAPI was heavily denounced in technology circles for its opaqueness and lack of protection, with engineers claiming that “almost no commercial market will trust or accept unknown ciphers.” Due to strong objections from the US government and IT vendors, China was forced to drop the WAPI standard. Yet, notwithstanding what was a blatant threat to security and privacy, Apple had readily caved on its product standards to comply with the Chinese government’s request.

Two years later, in 2014, Apple opted to begin storing Chinese users’ data on the servers of state-owned China Telecom. This decision stood in contrast to decisions by other technology giants, including Google, who had publicly refused to house data in China for fear of government access, control, and censorship. Such a move, despite reassurances from Apple that the data remained heavily encrypted, undoubtedly shifted significant control over the data from the American company to the Chinese government. In fact, iPhone security expert Jonathan Zdziarski stated that “whatever data is on Chinese servers is susceptible to confiscation or even cryptanalysis.” Apple, however, again chose to forsake its “strong privacy concerns” in return for access to the Chinese market.

In addition to changing its technology hardware to comport with Chinese regulations, Apple has a history of pulling apps from its store that are unpalatable to the Chinese government. Examples of removed apps include ones that mention the Dalai Lama and ethnic Uighur activist Rebiya, and another (Freeweibo) developed by Chinese cyber-activists which provided readers an uncensored version of China’s social media network, Sina Weibo. All of these apps attempted to bypass the government’s strict firewall in order to offer its readers untainted information. FreeWeibo? , in fact, had already successfully fended off initial attacks by the Chinese government, only to later be forcibly removed by Apple from its app store. Apple, on its end, claimed that they had been requested by the Chinese authorities to remove the app from the Chinese store because it was “against local laws.” In the fight against authoritarian censorship and control, Apple once again willingly stood shoulder to shoulder with the oppressor rather than the oppressed.

All of these interactions between Apple and the Chinese government reveal a shocking willingness to forsake security, privacy, and civil liberties. To Apple, China’s gross intolerance of free speech and notorious censorship regime pale in comparison to its promise as a booming and profitable market. Such savviness and opportunism stand in sharp contrast to a principle stance taken in the United States.

Fortunately, however, Apple’s recognition that privacy concerns are vital to its American consumers is also forcing them to visibly adopt a role its standard-bearer. This public battle shines a spotlight on Apple’s current and past practices in protecting consumer privacy, and makes it harder for Apple to engage in any behavior that undermines its righteous persona. Hopefully, as the public tide shifts towards greater value of privacy and security, Apple has no choice but to shift with it and redefine as a company.

This seems to me more like notes for a draft essay than the essay itself. The analysis we developed in class week by week should induce some caution in the idea that Apple and the US government were in fact locked in a dispute: as the turns of events confirmed, this was mostly posturing on both sides.

Similarly, although the statements made about the relations between Apple and the Chinese Communist Party are factually correct, they don't ever come down to brass tacks: without the Chinese market, the largest for this ridiculously overpriced mobile phone, the iPhone would already be a failing product, for a company that has no new products to offer. Apple had no choice, from a business point of view, to accept the demands of the despot that rules the locale where its product is both made and consumed. Selling out the freedom of Chinese consumers, like poisoning and exploiting Chinese workers, is simply an integral part of protecting the brand.

So, from my point of view, the route to the improvement of the essay is to move away from the "this is very bad, but let us hope that soon Apple will be better" position to one that reflects your realistic assessment of Apple's motives and intentions, now. Your take may not be mine, of course, but whatever it is you should be able to state it lucidly and forcefully, without depending on statements of fuzzy general hopefulness.

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r7 - 30 Apr 2017 - 22:11:13 - EbenMoglen
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