Apple vs FBI; How Counter-Terrorism Experts Want To See It End

FEB 26,2016

By Nati Katz, IDC Herzliya Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy & Strategy Alum

Technology companies have been approached by the media, inquiring which camp they’re on in the Apple-FBI public debate. Many of them found it as a PR opportunity to get some headlines, regardless of how useful they may or may not be, “if it happened to them”.

Rebuking the federal government in a Wednesday statement included companies like Google, whose NSA-alliance has been a matter of public debate last year, and Telegram – regarded”in the US”as ‘ISIS’s preferred messaging app’. Its founder, Pavel Durov was quoted on CNN saying “Opening ‘back door’ to encrypted apps could aid terrorists”.

So I decided to go and ask one of the world’s top counter-terrorism experts, author and speaker, Professor Boaz Ganor. As head of the International Institute of Counter Terrorism, Professor Ganor has advised Presidents, international organizations, and heads global intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

“Do you know what my dissertation was about?”, he asks me as we sit down at a hotel lobby across the UN building, where he has briefed CTED executives just earlier. Over thirty years ago and before many of the tech entrepreneurs were even born, Boaz Ganor titled his PhD ”Democratic Dilemmas in Counter-Terrorism; Efficiency vs Liberal Democratic Values”.

You can be very effective in countering terrorism when you completely ignore democracy and its rights of freedom, or perceived as the greatest protector of those rights if you turn your back completely on the notion of terrorism, he says. “It’s all about finding the right balance, and neither Apple nor the FBI can determine what that balance is”. Ganor wants to see this case brought to federal court and decided there. Not as a precedence, he emphasizes, but in this case alone and on a case-to-case basis, moving forward. “The balance requires sacrifices of some democratic values to ensure counter terrorism objectives, but also clear sacrifices of counter terrorism capabilities to preserve human basic rights of privacy”.

This isn’t precedence on any level, but one: that it’s been taken publicly. A newly unsealed court document proves that Apple has objected to or challenged around nine separate government requests to unlock its devices since September last year, the Intercept reported. And that still undiscloses the numerous occurrences Apple did approve such requests by the government.

This time, it’s about scoring points with the public. In Ganor’s view, it’s the FBI attempting to score points and show how effective they are in battling and investigating terrorist activity, while Apple wishes to woo customers in showing its commitment to their data and privacy.

So what’s the right thing to do?

Professor Ganor stresses we cannot undermine the fact terrorists actively use the internet and social platforms for its activity. On the other hand it’s unacceptable to ‘pull the plug’ on those companies behind the technology. What he wants to see is an ongoing mutual acknowledgment that companies place active monitoring and the application of data mining and analytics in real time to alert for any suspicious activity going on.

“Yes, I strongly believe that even ‘secret’ photo, video and text apps – all have the data documented and stored, for whatever amount of minimum time at the least”.

The constant development of technology, encryption, and counter-encryption is a cat & mouse chase. Technology in our age has brought society and global economy some of the most powerful means of growth and advancements, but in its double-edged sword nature, we must find the balance.

Most importantly though, we should realize that most of this happens behind the scenes anyway, and that this public debate is a PR battle.