The Proof is in the Phone

Copley Formal Lounge

March 31, 2016

The Philodemic gathered in Copley Formal Lounge for its final Merrick debate of the semester, Resolved: Apple should have unlocked the iPhone. Given the recent developments in the case, the resolution was updated to reflect the new reality. Mr. Daniel Ernst (COL ’18) of Massachusetts keynoted for the affirmation, along with Mr. Patrick Soltis (COL ’18) of Michigan, making his induction. On the negation, Ms. Laura Kurek (SFS ’16) of Illinois keynoted with Ms. Julia Friedman (SFS ’19) of New Mexico.

 Mr. Soltis began by drawing the Society into the fantastical world of knights, mythos, and technological conspiracy that is the saga of the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters. When the FBI demanded that Apple create a ‘backdoor’ to unlock the shooter’s iPhone, Apple refused, and while recently an anonymous 3rd party helped the FBI access the phone, the case still provides an interesting study of the intersection of security and privacy. Mr. Soltis conceived the debate’s central question as whether a company has a responsibility to make available private information to the government for security purposes. He argued that the FBI is only asking for limited information, seeking information about security threats. Orwellian fears about the government are based on slippery slope fallacies about a government which seeks this information only to protect us. Mr. Soltis concluded by emphasizing that code is just a tool, not a form of speech.

Ms. Friedmann focused the debate on how Apple should comply with the government, examining the legal precedents. She noted that the FBI invoked the All Writs Act of 1789, which hadn’t been used since its creation. Using the legal precedents to show that case law in the area was extremely limited, she argued that the FBI planned to use this case to obtain further backdoors. Ms. Friedmann made a case for the importance of digital privacy, emphasizing protecting all of our rights.

Mr. Ernst evoked the wide-reach of encryption, focusing on the moral implications of letting this important data go unreached. He pointed out that Apple sought to absolve itself of involvement in the criminal justice process, rejecting entreaties to help with other locked phones. Mr. Ernst made a compelling case for respecting the good intentions of law enforcement, at helping people who suffered crimes. He emphasized that phones may not be used to commit crimes and that our first priority should be to help victims.

Ms. Kurek framed encryption as answer to the mass vulnerabilities of the ‘dumb’ system of the internet. For Apple, creating a ‘backdoor’ the ipone would undermine its credibility and security of its products, as it would have endorsed a piece of malware. She held up the inability of the FBI to protect its own data to show that the FBI has to do better, not ask Apple to move backwards in securing its own data.

Ms. Landau opened the floor by demanding that Apple be a ‘good neighbor’ and cooperate with a mostly benign FBI while Mr. Spagnuolo (SFS ’14) brought his metaphorical tin hat to argue that the government should not be trusted at all. Mr. Eisen denounced this fear, contrasting it with our willingness to share our data with businesses. Vice President Little saw the issue of trust as central to the debate as Mr. Fletcher asked why if the government can compel individuals to die for it, why can Apple not create a product that makes us safer? Sergeant Burke asked in return, why would you ever trust the government, especially a Trump administration?

Opening non-member speaking time, Mr. Jackson Dolman (COL ’19) argued that Apple should have unlocked it instead of a 3rd party while Mr. Ben Zuegel (COL ’19) emphasized the importance of Apple’s choice in the matter. Bringing back member speaking time, Mr. Perez-Reyes lambasted Ms. Burke’s argument as hollow, seeking to refocus the debate on justice for the victims of the shooting. However, Mr. Graff cited the vulnerabilities created by a backdoor for all users to exploitation by not just the government but also criminals. Speaking against her mentee, Ms. Weissman centered the debate on the issue of terrorism and the imperative to stop it while Mr. Tu gave a rousing roast of his mentee. Mr. Willis argued that we should not let the risks of undermining encryption stymie our efforts to create a better web. In vigorous response, Chancellor Ringwald cited the Constitution’s allowance for marginal criminality in exchange for protecting mass privacy. Brining up the government’s errors, she argued that the backdoor would prove inherently flawed and insecure. Ms. Hernick posited this case as an example of the good compromise between privacy and security while Ms. Aleman emphasized that this policy, created out of fear, would not address the needs of fighting terrorism effectively. Chancellor Whelan sought a middle ground, arguing that Apple should devise an in-house solution to solve issues of trust. Yet Mr. Hunt-Smith pointed out that this key would exist in all our phones, a vulnerability more nefarious regimes could exploit. Mr. Musgrave closed the floor by conceiving a meaningful conservative response: security not from fear, but focusing on promoting peace.

Ms. Kurek responded to several points on the floor, emphasizing the dynamic nature of encryption and the ever-evolving arms race of cyber security. She characterized technology as unkown and ubiquitous and challenged the Society to educate itself and not give up privacy in the search for security. She gave a very meaningful thank-you in her last Philodemic keynote. Mr. Ernst described the greatest fear of the night as the fear of the government among the Society’s members. He viewed this as irrational, as because we live in a democratic system, we control our government. Exhorting the Society to escape a paralysis of fear, he contrasted the government’s mild request with mass commercial control over our data, which we do willingly. He closed by demanding checks on this system.

Ms. Friedmann thanked her friends and the women of Philodemic. She characterized companies’ use of personal information as benign, while the ‘backdoor’ would affect everyone extremely negatively. This decision could affect future cases, and the code will get out. She called for a popular say in how technology intersects with the government. Mr. Soltis gave a wide-ranging and very nice series of thank-yous, and in his closing, called not for a fearful reaction to the event, but advancements in encryption in response to the ‘backdoor.’ In doing so, Apple would be playing a positive role in conducting beneficial development to surmount a technical problem. Thus, not only a bad precedent, but a good precedent could be set by this case, while surely it will continue in the future.

With a vote of 19 affirming, 2 abstaining, and 31 negating, this resolution is negated!

The Society then voted to award Merrick points to the most eloquent speakers of the evening, for the last time this semester.

The points were awarded as follows:

1 points – Sergeant Burke

2 points – Mr. Perez-Reyes, Ms. Kurek

3 points – Mr. Ernst

4 points – Chancellor Ringwald, Mr. Musgrave

5 points – Chancellor Whelan, Mr. Graff

After a tie-breaking vote, the final four Merrick keynotes will be in order:

  1. Andrew Shaughnessy (SFS ’16)
  2. Chancellor Madeleine Ringwald (COL ’16)
  3. Danny Graff (SFS ’16)
  4. Chancellor Michael Whelan (COL ’16)

 The Society then inducted Ms. Friedmann and Mr. Soltis.

Congratulations to our four superlative Merrick keynoters and our two inductees!


Garrett Hinck

One thought on “The Proof is in the Phone

  1. My view of the debate is rooted in my view as a user. (Full disclosure: I own an Android phone, not an iPhone, and I never use my phone for Internet access, much less for financial transactions.) I’ve been involved with computer security since the 1980s, and have performed numeroous computer security reviews of government systems (too bad they didn’t listen to my recommendations; I could have pedicted every one of the hackings we’ve read about in the last several years).

    Many people use their phones for financial transactions. Uncrackble encryption is absolutely necessary to facilitate such commerce. If every transaction carried the risk of exposure of one’s SSN, bank account number, or passwords, such commerce would grind to a halt.

    Further, I fully believe the data on the phone in question are stale. I’m reasonably certain that anyone who was engaged in nefarious activities with Farood on that phone knows the authorities have it, and any bread crumbs have already been erased. None of the web sites, logonids, passwords, or any other means of exposure of the users still exist. The FBI and others are drilling a dry hole.

    My final argument is that, under the patent and copyright laws of the US, Apple is entitled to its intellectual property. For the government to attempt to fore them to compromise their intellectual property is in violation of several provisions in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

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