Welcome to the Surveillance State: The Land of Ineffective Technology

The Role of Surveillance in Our Everyday Lives

In the name of national security, the United States federal government has continued to magnify its long history of spying on average citizens post 9-11. From the targeting of African-American activists in the era of Martin Luther King Jr. to the monitoring of Muslim communities, there is no denying we are living in an expanding surveillance state. But as surveillance has become a national conversation thanks to whistleblower Edward Snowden and the recent leak of 11.5 million confidential documents known as the Panama Papers, there has been a simultaneously increasing awareness regarding aggressive policing tactics in minority communities. These two discussions, however, have yet to be discussed hand in hand. Alvaro Bedoya, founder of Georgetown Law's Center on Privacy & Technology, said, “We’re having these two separate debates that are running in parallel and never intersecting,” he explains. “There’s no recognition that those issues constantly overlap. The level of policing of the black community is facilitated by the surveillance laws and surveillance technology developed for the war on terror.”

What’s evident is that the advancement of technology lies at the heart of these issues, but we nevertheless tend to overlook the companies and more specifically, software engineers, that are creating the technology; however, there is a chance that the spotlight will finally be on those who write the code as seen in the recent FBI vs. Apple case in which Apple's software engineers vehemently refused to build a "backdoor" for the iOS operating system. As a result of bringing this issue into the public spotlight, many third party companies have rushed to be contracted to write the code that would assist the FBI. This particular case paints a clear picture of the two sides of the spectrum that software engineers fall under in the encryption debate.

Apple vs. FBI: The Role of Third Party Companies and Engineers in Surveillance Tactics

A few months ago, a federal court ordered Apple to assist the FBI in essentially breaking into an iPhone owned by a San Bernardino shooting suspect. Apple denied the request, saying the case threatened to undermine the encryption that is built into their product to protect users’ personal data. Apple's CEO, Tim Cook, stated, "We can find no precedent for an American company being forced to expose its customers to a greater risk of attack." He continued, "For years, cryptologists and national security experts have been warning against weakening encryption." Apple argues that the "hacking" software that the FBI wants it to write would act as a "master key" that can unlock anyone's phone at any time. On the other hand, the government cites the All Writs Act of 1790 in its argument. This forces judges to figure out how to apply a 227 year old law to the era of smartphones.

More recently, the FBI came out and said it had found a way into the iPhone owned by the San Bernardino shooter and subsequently dropped the suit. How was this done? Well, we don't know. There are a good number of theories on how it was done. Bloomberg and others have reported that the FBI worked with the Israeli company, Cellebrite, which sells an iOS User Lock Code Recovery Tool; however, the choice to hire Cellebrite goes beyond just finding a “third party” to construct this hacking technology, as the company provided an aspect of diversity that hasn’t been collaborated with before in the expanding, domestic, technological market centered around Apple, Inc.

Regardless of the exact methods that were used by Cellebrite, those who work at Apple and on cybersecurity in general deserve the right to know about security flaws so companies can protect their consumers. Unfortunately, the FBI has already offered to assist local enforcement agencies unlock phones, demonstrating how they don't plan to share the iPhone security flaws with Apple. The company does have an option to utilize a little-known law that requires the government to share any vulnerabilities - unless the administration can present that there is a significant national security need to keep the security flaw a secret. The process, known as an "equities review," was created under President Obama's administration to determine if new security flaws should be shared or kept secret. The action also, "gives the government a specific time frame for alerting companies to the flaws."

Regardless of whether Apple will ever find out how the FBI was able to break into the iPhone, there were separate decisions made by the software engineers at Cellebrite and those at Apple on how to proceed. The former believed the code they were writing was in the best interest of national security, while the later argued that the creation of a backdoor would allow for millions of iPhone users to be subjected to the government viewing their otherwise encrypted communications - a move that was determined to be much more dangerous than the national security threat at hand. But beyond whatever Apple believed to be in the best interests of its consumers, its engineers have reignited the debate of whether codes are protected under the First Amendment as free speech. While that is another debate in itself, there has been interesting research that has been done in affirming that code is indeed free speech.

Politicians Don't Know Anything about Technology - For the Most Part

Of course, software engineers aren't solely responsible for the heavy use of technology in surveillance. During this election season, candidates in national and local elections have described themselves as "getting smart" on crime* by proposing to address crime through predictive policing technology. This technology relies on the data police collect, which reflects and reinforces any existing anti-black biases in policing practices. When you look at the surveillance conducted by the NYPD with the help of the CIA on Muslim communities, the technology has proven to be ineffective, as the data collected was too declared too incomplete to predict crime. The existing records also showed indications of racial biases; Nevertheless, this data was used to justify the over policing of minority communities which drove even more police violence and incarceration rates.   

The solutions to building national security policies and technology that works for nearly everyone are quite similar, as they call for engineers and politicians to unpack their biases. Technology companies need to realize they can't have most of their software engineers all look the same if their programs are going to be used by and on most of the population. Reminder: Diversity numbers amongst the top technology numbers don't look to hot, and this is why the government may have made the right call when deciding to seek out help from engineers beyond those in the United States at Cellebrite.

When it comes to politicians, it is a bit too much to expect candidates to be well versed the workings of encryption, but we must keep them accountable for creating a vicious cycle-- one in which money from civil forfeitures and the war on drugs have been used to fund surveillance equipment.

Moreover, the integration of surveillance technology within the American governmental and political systems has effectively aroused discussions throughout the general public, as these communities feel more empowered to watch back. This can be seen with the rise in popularity of groups that build applications intended to enable citizens to track their interactions with police. With the increase of whistleblowing and the rise of organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Campaign Zero, we can agree that it isn’t a matter of when someone is being watched but who is doing the watching.

Works Cited:

Bedoya, Alvaro. "The Color of Surveillance." Georgetown Law. N.p., Apr. 2016. Web. Apr. 2016.

Bedoya, Alvaro M. "What the FBI’s Surveillance of Martin Luther King Tells Us About the Modern Spy Era." Slate. N.p., Jan. 2016. Web. Apr. 2016.

Benmeleh, Yaacov. "FBI Worked With Israel's Cellebrite to Crack IPhone." Bloomberg.com. Bloomberg, Mar. 2016. Web. Apr. 2016.