New York Daily News
Apple, ‘Scandal’ and real risk
For years, judges, cops and prosecutors have bemoaned the so-called “CSI effect” — the propensity for members of the public, including jurors hearing criminal cases — to expect an unrealistically high level of scientific depth, speed and efficiency from law enforcement.
Prosecutors now run useless forensic tests, just to satisfy jurors that no stone was left unturned; as one forensic expert complained on National Public Radio, “juries now expect high-level science to be done on lots of cases where again we don’t have the resources to do them and in many cases, the science doesn’t exist to do them.”
Something akin to the CSI effect is at work in the current debate over whether Apple, Google and other makers should be allowed to offer cell phones and other devices with levels of data encryption that are virtually uncrackable.
I’d call it the “Scandal” effect. The hit television show - along with dramas like “The Blacklist,” “NCIS” and “Homeland” — routinely depict government agents magically and instantly hacking any and every data system. A geek with a laptop hits a few keys, and — bang! — instantly pulls up an individual’s financial accounts, airline tickets, health records, emails and cell phone data, along with video from public and pri- vate surveillance cameras to pinpoint their exact location.
Nothing could be further from reality. The latest version of Apple’s mobile software includes a feature that, if enabled, erases all data from the phone after 10 incorrect password entries; neither the FBI, nor the Secret Service nor local authorities can get around it, and Apple refuses to lift a finger to help authorities do so.
“I think Americans know that DNA doesn’t come back in 20 minutes,” Hollywood mogul Anthony Zuiker, the creator of “CSI,” told National Public Radio back in 2011. “I think Americans know that there’s not some magical computer that you press and the guy’s face pops up and where he lives.”
Don’t be too sure about that, Mr. Zuiker. At its peak, the various incarnations of “CSI” had 30 million viewers a week, giving rise to phenomenon like a juror who explained he couldn’t trust prosecutors in a criminal case because “they didn’t even dust the lawn for fingerprints.” True story.
To hear Apple CEO Tim Cook and some privacy advocates talk about it, some unspecified people or agencies in our government have the power, ability and desire to knit a tyrannical net of all-intrusive surveillance and throw it over ordinary Americans.
There’s no other way to interpret Cook’s recently-issued letter to Apple customers explaining why the company is refusing to help the FBI figure out a way to get the contents of a cell phone used by the terrorists who recently murdered 14 innocent people in San Bernardino.
“The implications of the government's demands are chilling,” writes Cook. “If the government can . . . make it easier to unlock your iPhone, it would have the power to reach into anyone’s device to capture their data. The government could extend this breach of privacy and demand that Apple build surveillance software to intercept your messages, access your health records or financial data, track your location, or even access your phone’s microphone or camera without your knowledge.”
That kind of fear-mongering, which plays directly into the fictional digital prowess of the FBI and CIA found only in Hollywood, is a gross overstatement of the delicate balance between individual privacy rights and the government’s need to protect innocent members of the public from violent criminals and terrorists.
Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, who has been raising the alarm about uncrackable cell phones, recently listed various situations in which cell-phone data was crucial to building a case. One was the murder of a New Yorker captured on the victim’s phone camera; another involved a trio of hoodlums accused of beating, raping and robbing Asian women.
“Just bring that pepper spray and taser,” read a text message between defendants; another said “Soon we will terrorize NYC again.”
That kind of obviously incriminating evidence — along with photos taken by pedophiles and information to establish alibis and prevent wrongful convictions — will increasingly be off-limits if Cook gets his way. Vance says he now has 155 criminal cases (and growing) in which his investigation is being held up by cell phone encryption.
I’m not sure where and how we should put limits on cell-phone encryption. But as we figure out the right balance between privacy and safety, let’s make sure we aren’t being swayed by Hollywood hype.
‘Soon we will terrorize NYC again’