In NYC, an FBI Protest and Apple Rally: "This Is About Security for All of Us"

Citizens gathered, media flocked, and everyone got rained on.

Joe Carmichael (shot on an iPhone 6)

On Tuesday, citizens around the globe organized protests or rallies that aimed to either support Apple’s defense of privacy or protest the government’s alleged oversteps. New York City was no exception, although here the event was more of an odd mishmash of the two endeavors.

And it was quite visibly a poor showing. The weather, to be fair, did not do well to excite activism: Just above freezing, with a stiff wind whipping rain into your face and nudging you forward while you stood stock still. When the protest-rally or rally-protest kicked off at 5:30 p.m. at the Apple Store near Central Park, press and media outnumbered protesters two-or-three to one. That’s not saying much: there were a maximum of 20 protestors at the event’s most attended moment. These attendees huddled together between an enclosure formed from interlocked bike rack barricades, and, with enough news vans and teams to make it down to your toes counting, the whole scene evoked a zoo. Video cameras with newscasters and their microphones attached ogling people with strong opinions. Strong opinions, in this case, about people’s right to encryption.

The zoo. (A few policemen and security people stood around, chatting and observing.)

Joe Carmichael (shot on an iPhone 6)

In case you missed it, the government wants access to the San Bernardino shooters’ iPhone, but claims — due to the iPhone security feature that only allows 10 passcode attempts before erasing the data — that it cannot hack into the device without risking permanent data loss. In a court case in California, a judge approved a court order compelling Apple to assist the FBI. Apple’s CEO Tim Cook argued that one exception would spell disaster in the future; the “back door” key to let law enforcement in would actually serve as a master key for any hacker who wanted to break into an iPhone. We’re waiting for Apple’s official response to the court order, due Friday, though we can only expect that it’ll oppose the order.

At any given protest, there are people who want to be there. Also at any given protest, there are people who want to have made an appearance there. (Those people who wanted to have made an appearance there also wanted to have made an appearance there in such extreme conditions. These platitudes are also true of the media — by 6:15 p.m., almost all news vans had departed and only a very few event attendees remained. These steadfast few appeared, well, miserable.) The New York #DontBreakOurPhones protest was no exception.

Tidbits overheard and/or experienced at the event:

An older, rotund man with a white beard and a worn Carhartt jacket, screaming at no discernable individual:

“You need to stand up for your privacy and you need to do that every day.”

A man from Fight for the Future — the organization behind the protests — thrown in front of a media frenzy, saying:

“It’s so wonderful that people came out in spite of this lovely weather. This is one very small part of a much bigger political action. We’re just so stoked that people care so much about this issue. So, just, thank you for filming.”

Another, more expressive man, speaking with passion:

“As civil liberties advocates and social justice organizers: we’re here to push back against the FBI’s overly-broad order. We want a process going forward that involves security experts in these debates, and so we’re here to also let our elected officials know that the public cares about security and cryptography. It’s baked into all of our phones, and so we want to make sure that, going forward, the ability to communicate securely is preserved. So, this isn’t a battle between privacy and security: this is about security for all of us. If the FBI wants a government back door in all of our phones, they also open up a back door to hackers and cybercriminals. We’re here to say that we think people deserve to trust the smartphones that we use all the time, and so we want to let Apple know that we support their stand. And we’re hoping to bring more experts to the table.”

Literally pitiful, weak-spirited, short-lived chants of “Don’t break our phones. Secure phones save lives.”

Two members of a four-member group of relative youngsters dialoguing, uncertain:

“Almost as many media as everyone else.”
“We’re trying to stay positive.”
Joe Carmichael (shot on an iPhone 6)

Inverse spoke with two attendees: Louis Abelman, a volunteer for Fight for the Future and “concerned citizen” who described himself as “just a layperson … not in tech, just tech-aware”; and David, a “computer professional” who did not wish to share his last name. The interviews were conducted separately, but are here combined.

What brings you here?

David: I’m here to support Apple. I’m a computer professional and I’m really aware of how interconnected all of our devices are. If the guy who’s working on securing your bank account has an insecure iPhone in his pocket, your bank account’s going to be insecure, too.

Louis: I kind of heeded the call at Fight for the Future, an organization I follow. They’ve been doing a great job, for a number of years, getting into these issues that people aren’t always aware of — because the issues are new, technology is new. And the ways in which our rights get compromised — without us really realizing it in these new domains. So, we’re here to support Apple — for once — to support Apple against the FBI. It’s not a matter of privacy versus security: it’s really all forms of security, beyond one short-sighted push for access to these phones. We think that the FBI is being very hasty and that this is all very rushed, and we just want a more deliberate process. A process that involves more experts, and more varied expertise, because these are difficult, complicated issues.

Do you feel that Apple is rushing because of the precedent that it’d set?

Louis: Yeah, I think they’re always taking the opportunity to grab as much access, and widen their capabilities of surveillance, as much as they can. Now, that’s kind of their job; I don’t blame them. But it’s our job to reassert our rights and our right to privacy, and also to recognize that beyond privacy — it’s about security, because, in this era, cryptography actually protects us from a lot of bad actors, cybercriminals, and terrorists. We know that a back door — having introduced a back door for the FBI, that’s weakening the entire system of protection. After the FBI will come the bad actors, like the cyberterrorists and the criminals.

Another protester [David] likened it to a chain: when one link is weakened, it …

Louis: Yeah, I mean — it’s a wall. It’s sort of like: any crack in that wall, and the water will come rushing through.

Some people simply wanted to get their Macbooks serviced.

Joe Carmichael (shot on an iPhone 6)

Are you worried about your own privacy, or that of your fellow citizens?

Louis: I’m not particularly concerned about my own privacy, but I know that there are, you know, millions of people who are. And it’s not just the United States: there are people working in dictatorships — journalists and rights activists — and communications are all taking place electronically, and people really rely on the security of their electronic devices and depend on that. As much as possible, technology is giving us this security — cryptography has reached a point of sophistication. We don’t want to deliberately weaken that in a hasty way for an investigation without really thinking through the ramifications.

David: My fear is how connected this is. It’s a fantasy to think we could give access only to the good guys — I support the FBI as well — but once we give that access out, everyone’s going to have it. Including the bad guys.

You’re a computer expert. I’ve heard that opinion voiced a lot, but I haven’t heard much in the way of concrete explanations of why that would be the case.

David: It’s a little esoteric to people who don’t look at that everyday. But, you know, no one really believes that on the luggage locks, the TSA’s the only one with those keys. Once they put that out there, then anyone can get those keys. But this situation has more far-reaching consequences, because we’re talking about our technological infrastructure. So, once we make pieces of it vulnerable, then it’s easier for terrorists to come in and attack us from different angles.

So, just letting them in once would expose that vulnerability?

David: It’s a chain with links, and when you make one link weak, then the rest of the chain becomes weak.

Do you feel that the San Bernardino case would be an exception if Apple were to give in to the pressure?

David: Not at all. I wish it was, but giving access to everyone, to everyone’s phones, is like giving out a master key to every one of our houses’ front doors. It just doesn’t work that way.

Louis: I believe that Apple is already cooperating with the FBI in that particular investigation, but what we’re really here to stand up against is the FBI’s requirement that Apple install new software on millions of phones as a result of this one case. I think —

Is that actually happening?

Louis: I think, you know, we see the government intelligence agencies who are going to … take advantage of a situation, if I may say. I think that’s what this is about. It’s about millions of phones; it’s not about just one case.

But: you said, specifically, that they’re installing software —

Louis: Well, they’re trying to require Apple to write new software to give them access to all iPhones.

I haven’t actually heard that. Maybe I haven’t been following the case. Could you point me in that direction?

Louis: [Grabs me a flyer]

Oh, I saw that online.

Louis: Yeah, so, it’s about iPhones as a whole.

Okay. Do you feel that this is more of a business move on Apple’s part, or more of an honest concern?

Louis: I can’t really say what motivates Apple. I know that the engineers and software developers and security experts all support strong cryptography, and I think it’s just a tendency in the tech world to support strong cryptography. So, I can imagine that they fall on that side of the line as well.

David: I think they’re trying to keep trust in their brand, which is definitely a business move, and I think this is an excellent way to do it. Privacy’s so important to everyone, and so important to us as a society, and people recognize that.

Joe Carmichael (shot on an iPhone 6)

Do you trust that Apple’s primary interest is user privacy and security?

David: I think they’re trying to keep trust in their brand, which is definitely a business move, and I think this is an excellent way to do it. Privacy’s so important to everyone, and so important to us as a society, and people recognize that.

How honest do you think that their position is? Tim Cook’s letter to customers, for instance — in the courts, he’s said “We’re all about business,” and “We can’t have our customers lose faith in our brand,” but, in public, it’s all about privacy, the security of devices.

David: I think both are true. I really do. I follow the industry closely; I’ve been in it for decades. Not every move that, say, Apple makes is in the consumers’ best interest, but this one is. So, I think they’re both true: I think it’s aligned in this case.

What’s your iPhone’s passcode?

Louis: [Laughs] 1812, for the war of 1812.

I actually use Android.

David: [Laughs.] Nice.

No comment?

David: No comment.

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