Why the FBI Versus Apple Could Make 1984 a Reality

By Kate Knibbs on at

Amicus briefs in support of Apple in its court battle with the FBI are rolling in, and the Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Technology’s contribution is a horror story of impending dystopia, with eerie parallels to George Orwell's 1984.

The CIT technologists lay out a scenario in which the FBI uses the Apple ruling as precedent to force tech companies to turn televisions, computer monitors, and other internet-connected devices into a web of in-home surveillance hubs.

The FBI wants Apple to create a special software to help it unlock the iPhone of a San Bernardino mass shooting suspect. Apple is arguing that conscripting it to write code that will weaken its security and set a chilling legal precedent to allow the government to strong-arm tech companies into weakening their security measures.

In CIT’s projected scenario, it’s not just police pressuring Apple to turn on iPhones: it’s law enforcement turning Amazon Echo and Samsung’s smart TVs into surreptitious listening devices:

iPhones and other mobile phones are not the only common consumer appliances that this Order sets a precedent for converting to surveillance devices. Amazon distributes an appliance called the Echo that captures spoken voice.15 While Amazon designed the Echo only to send voice data to Amazon if it “hears” the word “Alexa,” that limitation, like the iPhone passcode limitations, is encoded in software. Similarly, smart TVs, like those sold by Samsung, capture and transmit owners’ voices in an effort to identify natural language commands and search requests. In responding to consumer privacy concerns, Samsung assured the public that TV owners’ voice data would only be collected if the TV user clicks the activation button and speaks into the microphone on the remote control.

Again, like the iPhone passcode limitations, this privacy safeguard is a function of software. If the government is allowed compel Apple to change its software to enable decryption and forensic access here, will it also be allowed to compel Amazon to update the Echo, or Samsung to update its Smart TVs, to always collect some customers’ conversations?

I know 1984 is a pretty stale literary reference for describing a terrifying surveillance state, and honestly I wouldn’t be surprised if the clever people crafting this brief deliberately worded this section to remind readers of the always-listening gadgets surrounding the people in Orwell’s novel. But the CIT writers did a hell of a job.

You can read the full brief here.