Revolutionary Measures

Will the FBI take a bite out of Apple?

Apple has built itself into the largest quoted company in the world by being different. From the early days of the Macintosh computer, through the iconic iMac and onto the iPod, iPad and iPhone, its products have challenged the orthodox approach with a combination of design and features.

English: The logo for Apple Computer, now Appl...

It has extended this into the virtual world. Unlike competitors such as Google and Facebook, which have built businesses essentially based on collecting and selling personal data to advertisers, Apple has positioned itself as a champion of privacy. In a speech in 2015 CEO Tim Cook stated, “We believe the customer should be in control of their own information.

This approach extends to protecting personal information stored on Apple devices and within iCloud. All iPhones and iPads are encrypted by default, meaning that even Apple itself cannot access the data on them. This obviously gives an unprecedented layer of protection for personal data, which has been particularly welcomed after Edward Snowden’s revelations of widespread snooping by intelligence services on electronic communications.

However protecting normal citizens against hackers, criminals and terrorists is one thing, but what happens when the iPhone in question actually belongs to a terrorist? This is the current case, being hotly debated in the media and on social media. Following the San Bernadino terrorist shootings last year, the FBI recovered one of the perpetrator’s iPhones. Obviously this is locked with a 4 digit passcode, and simply cycling through all possible combinations is impossible – after a number of failed tries iPhones are programmed to erase all data to combat this type of brute force attack.

Consequently, the FBI has asked Apple to help, removing the erase feature from this specific phone and allowing it to try and guess the password electronically, rather than having to type in the potential 10,000 combinations. It has refused, rejecting a court order and issuing an open letter stating that it will not ‘hack itself’ and create an insecure back door into its products that could be exploited by others.

In many ways Apple has a point – even without the Snowden revelations, governments have a poor record of keeping backdoors safe. This was demonstrated by the US Transportation Security Administration, which mandated that all luggage manufacturers created a skeleton key that could be used to open any suitcase. A photo of the master key was accidentally printed in the Washington Post, allowing criminals to model and create it using 3D printers.

At the same time, the FBI is adamant that it is not asking for access to the backdoor itself – it says it is happy for Apple to disable the erase feature itself and provide access to the data, without telling the Feds how it was done. Essentially Apple is putting itself above the law, which has potentially chilling ramifications given its size, number of users and global reach. It isn’t the plucky underdog it was when the Mac first went up against the PC.

The high profile nature of the case, and the fact that it involves a proven terrorist further complicates matters – most right-thinking people would want to help the government in this scenario. Perhaps the wisest words have come from Bill Gates, who is calling for a wider debate on the balance between privacy and accessibility, irrespective of the case in hand.

As I’ve said before, a reputation for protecting user information is a central part of the Apple brand – and is only becoming more important as the company branches into payments (Apple Pay) and personal health data. Therefore its principled stance makes perfect sense from a marketing point of view. It may well have to eventually comply in some way, but it will have lived up to its promise to fight for privacy, keeping the rest of its community happy, and consequently protected its brand. However what the whole case shows is that we need a grown-up, rational debate about who has access to our personal data, under what circumstances and how they can access it.

February 24, 2016 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Mining the future

Seal of the Central Intelligence Agency of the...

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As someone with a history degree I’m a firm believer that the past gives us real clues as to how future events will pan out. Just take a look at the current war in Afghanistan and how learning from the failed Russian (and even Victorian British) invasions demonstrate what tactics are likely to work.

Essentially what it comes down to is access to as much data as possible, and being able to organise this into meaningful information, draw conclusions and act on them. And where’s the biggest source of open data in the world? The internet. So I wasn’t surprised to see a recent piece in Wired on a Swedish start-up called Recorded Future that mines the web for information in order to predict events.

Recorded Future works by collecting and analysing a combination of mainstream news, official announcements and social media in order to draw conclusions. It only analyses 25,000 sources via RSS feeds but Recorded Future’s key USP is a powerful algorithm that takes this unstructured data and analyses it, looking for patterns and relationships. Essentially it does what a skilled analyst would do, if they had access to a huge amount of data and processing power.

While a relatively young company, Recorded Future has powerful backing – the CIA’s investment arm In-Q-Tel (IQT) has put money in, and there’s a lot of interest from financial speculators and hedge funds, looking to predict future stock market moves.

And for me that’s the disappointing thing – while it is going where the money is, predicting the future should be about much more than spies and share prices. Imagine using the software to map potential humanitarian disasters before they happen so that action can be taken early. Or looking across disciplines to bring together disparate health information in order to predict treatments for common diseases. So while I wish Recorded Future, and competitors such as Wolfram Alpha, Quid and Blekko, well, it would be nice to see them used for the common good as well as making a quick buck.






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November 7, 2011 Posted by | Marketing, Startup | , , , , , , | Leave a comment