20 FEBRUARY 2016
Apple stands up to surveillance
Apple CEO Tim Cook’s revelation this week that the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation wants his company to take the “unprecedented step” of hacking into the iPhone 5 device used by terrorists in the San Bernardino, California attack in December 2015, highlights the complexity that the world today faces in simultaneously pursuing two well-meaning goals: digital security and national security. The problem is, it seems that one cannot be pursued without jeopardising the other. Mr. Cook, who opposes the order, is clearly privileging the former, while the FBI is interested in the latter. The CEO was quick to explain that as a matter of policy Apple regularly complied with valid subpoenas and search warrants, including in the San Bernardino case, in which he said Apple had made its engineers available to advise the FBI. However, in opposing the FBI’s order, his remarks represent the sharpest public protest by any of the Silicon Valley tech giants against the post-Snowden U.S. surveillance state. In this, he has also got support from tech heavyweights such as Google and Microsoft. Their defiance is understandable. For the tech giants, compliance with such orders can easily put at risk the value proposition of data protection they pitch to their users, thereby putting their businesses in peril. As more and more of our lives get played out in the digital world, more advanced security features will inevitably become central to their offerings in the future. Mr. Cook knows this well — his note was addressed to the customers.
According to Mr. Cook, the FBI has asked Apple to produce a new version of the iPhone operating system (OS) that would circumvent critical security features such as the automatic memory wipe that happens when the wrong login code is entered 10 times. The authorities, Mr. Cook said, intend to have this new operating system installed on the government-owned iPhone recovered during the investigation of the San Bernardino attack, yet there may be no guarantee that the government would limit the use of this special OS to this device alone. Mr. Cook’s discomfiture with complying with the FBI’s request has to do with — and rightly so — the lurking risk that the iPhone hack programme that Apple considers “too dangerous to create” would inevitably produce backdoor access to all iPhones. After all, the debate stirred up by Edward Snowden resulted in an effective end to the bulk collection of the phone records of millions of Americans. Such progress would be undone if new surveillance weapons were built and entrusted to the NSA. Yielding to this one ask, which the FBI proposes to enforce via the 227-year-old All Writs Act, could bring in a flood of such requests from around the globe, including from regimes where the legal framework to constrain cyber-snooping operations may be far from adequate with regard to protecting the civil liberties of citizens. The argument that this is for a one-off case is thus weak. As the technologists know, there may be little that is exclusive or one-time about special access.
The emperor’s new nationalism
From Hyderabad to Jawaharlal Nehru University, from the death of Rohith Vemula to the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, a clear political agenda by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party can be discerned. At first flush, this is a party whose top leaders — and they include members of the Union Cabinet — are all too willing to pick fights with student leaders and give establishment cover to the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the Sangh’s student wing. But to see events that have unfolded over the past week only as the government’s battle for ideological control for India’s universities, as real and as condemnable as the effort is, would be to miss the gravity of the moment. In the national capital this week, the Home Minister gave currency to parody accounts of Pakistani terrorists to build a case against JNU students and yet remained visibly unmoved by the obstinate refusal of the city’s police force, which comes under his charge, to arrest “nationalist” lawyers and a party MLA who beat up students on and around court premises. BJP spokespersons affected condemnation of the violence, but breathed outrage about the allegedly seditious sentiments voiced at a meeting on the JNU campus to mark the death anniversary of Afzal Guru, convicted in the 2001 Parliament attack case and hanged in 2013. Such false equivalence has never been seen since Independence, between a Central government virtually refusing to honour the state’s essential compact with its citizenry to enforce the law and the right of Indians to freely express their sentiments, that too in the especially free zone that university campuses are meant to be. And its utterance should frame an anxiety the Prime Minister must respond to, that “nationalism” is being adopted as a political and executive touchstone by which Indians are sought to be divided between those with the ruling dispensation and those not.
Besides taking the fight to the country’s campus that is most identified with Left politics, the JNU development was obviously a chance for the BJP to recover from the excesses of Hyderabad. With it, the party has reframed the ABVP’s adoption of “nationalist” outrage from a Sangh versus Dalit binary to one in which the identities of “anti-nationalists” are insinuated, and not overtly specified. It is, thus, a curious overlay to agitations over the JNU incidents that all Central universities are now required to fly the national flag. It is a dangerous phase in this country’s history when the government at the Centre is seen to be actively assisting in a right-wing effort to shape the discourse on nationalism. This is why the use of Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code on sedition acquires greater menace than in instances in the past, when it has mostly been used by thin-skinned politicians to fend off critiques. Its application against JNU students and the unchecked violence against students and activists at Delhi’s Patiala House courts have sent out a message that the rule of law could be enforced selectively. If Prime Minister Narendra Modi differs from this dark reading of events, he needs to speak up.