What’s at stake in the FBI iPhone case? Your privacy and safety.

NPR: Encryption, Privacy Are Larger Issues Than Fighting Terrorism, Clarke Says. With all due respect to Richard Clarke, who sits on the board of my employer and who has been on the right side of arguments about cybersecurity for about 20 years: of course they are. Of course, the correction should probably be aimed at NPR’s Writer of Breathless Headlines.

As I’ve written before, it’s ironic that a federal government that can’t secure its own systems is presuming to dictate terms of secure computer design. What explains it is a continued reliance on magical thinking: a supposition that, if we try hard enough, we can overcome any barrier. In this case, the barrier is the ability to offer a secret backdoor to law enforcement in an encryption technology without endangering all other users of that encryption technology. Sadly, President Obama appears to subscribe to this magical thinking:

If, technologically, it is possible to make an impenetrable device or system where the encryption is so strong that there’s no key – there’s no door at all – then how do we apprehend the child pornographer? How do we solve or disrupt a terrorist plot?

The whole point of cryptography that works is that there’s no door at all for unauthorized users. If you put one in, you have to put the key somewhere, and you open yourself up to having it stolen, or having someone figure out how to get in. And if you ask for a special version of an operating system that can unlock a locked iPhone, you end up with software that can be applied without restriction to every locked phone, by the government, by the next 100 world governments that ask for access to it, and by whoever manages to breach federal computers and steal the software for their own use.

This would be a fun theoretical exercise, as it mostly was back in the days of the Clipper Chip debates, were it not for the vast businesses that are built on secure commerce, protected by cryptography; the lives of dissidents in totalitarian countries who seek to protect their speech and thoughts with cryptography; the national secrets that are protected by cryptography; the electronic assets of device users everywhere that are protected from criminals by cryptography. But because of all those things, to propose to compel a computer manufacturer to embed a back door system—or worse, to turn over their intellectual property to the government so that they can add such a feature.

And Clarke’s analysis says that the last thing is what this is all about: bringing technology companies to heel by setting a precedent that they must do whatever the government asks, no matter how much it endangers users of their products. Read this exchange:

GREENE: So if you were still inside the government right now as a counterterrorism official, could you have seen yourself being more sympathetic with the FBI in doing everything for you that it can to crack this case?

CLARKE: No, David. If I were in the job now, I would have simply told the FBI to call Fort Meade, the headquarters of the National Security Agency, and NSA would have solved this problem for them. They’re not as interested in solving the problem as they are in getting a legal precedent.

If Clarke, who helped to shape the government’s response to the danger of cyberattacks, says that the NSA could have hacked this phone for the FBI, I believe him. This is all about making Apple subordinate to the whims of the FBI. The establishment of the right of the government to read your mail above all rights to privacy is only the latest step in a series of anti-terrorism overreactions that brought us such developments in security theater as the War on Liquids. Beware of anyone telling you otherwise.