FBI Overreach in Pursuit of Apple Compliance

appleThe Apple-FBI saga playing out in a very public way is a classic case of overreach by a law enforcement agency. The FBI is putting extraordinary (and unprecedented) pressure on Apple following the horrific San Bernadino shootings. The U.S. government has filed a motion in court to compel Apple to re-engineer its operating system so that the FCC can investigate whether the shooter used his iPhone to communicate or plan with other potential co-conspirators.

Forcing Apple to crack open its own code might appeal to some people clamoring for a quick fix for the ever-increasing threat of terrorism in our country. Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes and the government’s move is an extraordinary threat to civil liberty. It also won’t solve the larger problem. A backdoor won’t stop terrorism, but it will weaken smartphone security systems with no likelihood of any real public benefit. The public, and policymakers, should support Apple’s public resistance to the FBI’s pressure tactics. The FBI’s proposal is dangerous for at least these four reasons:

It Won’t Stop Terrorism

The FBI wants Apple to build a post-incident forensic investigation tool to unpack what may have happened. But that will not actually deter or prevent terrorism. Terrorists will simply switch to using encrypted phones from other countries.

It Will Open Security Loopholes

If the government is allowed to force Apple to provide a backdoor to its operating system, it will weaken security for all U.S. consumers on a go-forward basis This will not force committed terrorists to think twice, but instead could make Apple’s operating system vulnerable to the hacking of consumer data on a large scale given the way this story is playing out publicly as the hacking community will be awaiting the court decision with baited breath.

It Sets A Terrible International Precedent

If the courts force this technology mandate on Apple, it’s also making this technology available to the rest of the world. That means rogue regimes and dictatorships interested in cracking down on the communications and online interests of its citizens will have access to the same security busting technology as the U.S. government. Limiting security on iPhones could put regular citizens, journalists or freedom fighters, who are often on the frontlines of fights against oppression, in peril.

It Encourages Malware

What the FBI is requesting is as akin to introducing a dangerous virus into Apple’s operating system. The FBI is demanding that Apple create malware by reformulating its software. Backdoor access not only creates access for the government but it creates a flaw that black hat hackers will attempt to exploit. There’s a good chance this will create unintended consequences for Apple and its operating system, which could create a myriad of issues for millions of iPhone users.

Terrorism is a serious problem and one we, as a country, must face head-on. But we need to approach the situation in a way that yields results without creating new vulnerabilities. Knee-jerk reactions, like the one we’re seeing from the FBI are certainly not the answer. They only harm civil liberties and create new problems down the line. We need to hold true to our societal principles, including a right to privacy or we risk handing the terrorists their first real victory by causing us to subvert our values for a gamble that evidence collected after this attack might prevent future attacks.

Tim Sparapani is founder of the consulting firm SPQR Strategies and senior policy counsel for CALinnovates. He was the first director of public policy at Facebook and was senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union. He is on Twitter: @TimSparapani.

This piece was originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

Phone Scammers Threaten Victims With Arrest, Collect Millions in ‘Fines’

Photo Courtesy of 401(K) 2013, Flickr

Photo Courtesy of 401(K) 2013, Flickr

The average American commits three felonies a day. That’s the estimate from Boston civil-liberties attorney Harvey Silverglate, who says the nation has so many vague laws, that honest people are constantly breaking them without even knowing it.

So when scammers posing as employees of the FBI, IRS or U.S. marshals call people on the phone and tell them they’ve broken some law, who knows, it may even be true.

However, regardless of whether the person receiving the phone call has actually broken a law, the real FBI, IRS and U.S. marshals don’t call people up and threaten to arrest them unless they immediately follow instructions to pay thousands of dollars with a prepaid debit card.

Law enforcement officials have described these calls as highly intimidating. The scammer typically begins by advising the targets that there are federal charges against them, and then threatening legal action and arrest. If questioned, the caller gets more aggressive, warning of frozen bank accounts and confiscated property.

Next, the fake government agent says it will cost thousands of dollars in fees, taxes or court costs to resolve the matter and avoid arrest. Specific instructions are given on how to buy a prepaid debit card and make a payment within the hour. Sometimes the scammer insists on staying on the phone until the victim returns with the card and reads the numbers, warning that if it takes too long, the fees will increase.

The U.S. Marshals Service recently issued a warning that phone scammers impersonating marshals were calling homes in Cincinnati, Ohio. Authorities in Tennessee and Michigan also reported a holiday season uptick in this particularly nasty telephone fraud. And it’s happening in Los Angeles, too.

Woodland Hills resident Lucy Silva said she first received one of these threatening calls on her cellphone about two years ago, and the most recent one within the last month.

“He said if I didn’t send them $3,000 immediately, they were going to come right over and arrest me,” Silva said. “I happened to be in New York at the time, so I just said to him, ‘Hey, bring it on.’”

Silva, a hair stylist, said one of her clients received a scam call from someone pretending to be her grandson, stating that he was in Peru and needed money right away.

“Her grandson really was in Peru,” Silva said, “and this guy knew it. He even knew how many siblings he had.”

The scam was foiled when the grandmother quizzed the scammer about the names of her other grandchildren. He hung up the phone.

Impersonation scams are made easier with social media sites like Facebook, which display the names of friends and family. Be cautious about accepting “friend requests” from total strangers who live in places like Nigeria.

Many of these con games are phoned in from Third World countries. The caller’s phone number is sometimes spoofed so that a real law enforcement agency phone number shows up on the Caller ID.

Internet technology has made scamming much easier and more profitable, and so has the growth in the use of prepaid debit cards.

Americans now spend about $80 billion a year on prepaid debit cards, an amount that has doubled since 2010. But at least one of these products was pulled from the market because of its popularity with online and telephone swindlers.

Green Dot, a Pasadena-based company, stopped selling its MoneyPak product in 2014. The popular green-and-white payment cards had a unique numerical code on the back that allowed anyone who obtained the code, anywhere in the world, to “unlock” the money and “reload” another debit card, in complete anonymity.

In 2013, consumers lost $30 million dollars to scams involving MoneyPak cards, by Green Dot’s estimate. The Federal Trade Commission says consumers reported losing $42.86 million to fraud involving prepaid debit products that year, but officials suspect that the total could be much higher because many victims do not report that they’ve been scammed.

If you get one of these calls, the FBI advises, resist the pressure to act quickly. Always be cautious when someone insists that you must use a specific payment method, which the government would not do. If you feel threatened, call the local police department.

Or you could tell the scammer that the National Security Agency is monitoring your calls and wants you to keep all callers on the line for at least two minutes so they can get their coordinates.

Who knows, it may even be true.