The FBI Answers Its Apple Dichotomy

Earlier this month, on March 2 to be exact, a post in this space asked the question whether the FBI's attack on Apple over the encryption of San Bernardino shooter Sayed Farook's work phone was a holy war or just another FBI whinge.

It was nice of the FBI to put the question to rest with the announcement that it was dropping the case against Apple, having found a way into the phone after all.

This was just another whinge, to go with all of the other whinges through the years.

A month ago, the issue was red hot. Apple CEO Tim Cook took a strong stand against the FBI's attempt to force Apple to come up with a back door into the phone. He did interviews everywhere defending privacy and arguing that what the FBI wanted was nothing less than a back door into everyone's phone. FBI Director James Comey said that Apple was placing itself "beyond the law."

Reams of court filings from Apple, the tech industry, the FBI and others elaborated on the debate, with charges and countercharges going back and forth as there was a large and noisy argument over privacy vs. security, whether Apple was supporting terrorism and whether the FBI wanted to spy on everybody.

The other point of the March 2 piece was the law enforcement, for all of its complaints, usually wins. Looking at the issue over a period of decades, the FBI and law enforcement has complained about every telecommunications advance since the invention of data and the passing of alligator clips. They said they couldn't tap wireless transmission. They said they couldn't tap data going through fiber optic cables.

All the while, they made the identical arguments that were made in the Apple case. We can't be blind to crime and/or terrorism. Your privacy must be compromised.

And yet, they figured it all out. Cell calls are intercepted. Data is tapped. Whatever the next thing is will be solved also.

It's a pity that law enforcement in general, and the FBI in particular, feel the need every time some barrier crops up to gin up the forces Security while scaring people into thinking they need to give up their privacy.

In theory, the FBI could have worked the problem with Farook's phone quietly, reaching out to the tech community and the academic world to see what could be done.

There was no reason to start yet another round of the holy war, ramping up the propaganda, getting Congress all excited, foisting false choices on people while casting aspersions on the tech industry in general and Apple in particular.

But as we've seen over the years, this is the FBI's MO. It would be nice if they were a little more enlightened, but given the institutional inertia that governs organizations, there's no reason to believe that such an attitude will come to pass.

So sit back, enjoy the denouement here, and wait for the next time. Remember: Those who forget the past shouldn't be surprised when it bites them in the ass.