Day 6

How the FBI's battle with Apple could be the opening salvo in a coming privacy war

The FBI may have lost its battle against Apple, but former White House technologist Ashkan Soltani says the war is far from over.
(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File) (The Associated Press)

The FBI, at least in a formal sense, has lost its battle with Apple over getting a permanent key to its encryption coding.

But the war is just beginning. So says Ashkan Soltani, a former technologist at the White House.

"This will be back in short order," he tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury. "The arms race is this battle to determine how much protection consumers can have over their communications, and how hard it would be for governments to defeat those protections."

Tech companies like Apple have "ratcheted up" the encryption technology in its phones, and governments will similarly increase their efforts to defeat those technologies, says Soltani.

He imagines a future where the government has access to all our devices. And it's not pretty.

Former White House technolgist Ashton Soltani worries that the Tesla and other high-tech cars may be able to be "taken over" by the government. ((Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters))

"Nearly all of our technology now, whether its an internet-connected refrigerator, the new Tesla car — they're all general-purpose computers." So in a world where the government can access our personal devices, he says, "It can instruct those companies to send commands to those cars, those refrigerators, those televisions to do something other than what the user would expect."

"You can imagine a world where your television would receive a command to send a report of what shows you're watching... or for the government to send a command to the car to lock all the doors and perhaps drive it to a [police] precinct when someone of interest is identified." 

FILE - This Feb. 19, 2014, file photo, shows WhatsApp and Facebook app icons on a smartphone in New York. (AP Photo/Patrick Sison, File) (The Associated Press)

If you think that sounds dystopic, you're right. But the U.S. government may already be heading in that direction, says Soltani. It unsuccessfully tried to force OnStar, a communication system installed in many GM cars, to turn on at its command so it could listen in on the conversations of organized-crime suspects, Soltani says. The court ruled that doing so could interfere with the safety function of the feature, and the government lost the case.

A former director of the U.S. National Security Agency has testified that they have been examining these sorts of appliances "as a viable source for signals intelligence" Soltani adds.

Soltani concedes that governments can already do things like block our passports or freeze our bank accounts or tap our phones with court-ordered permission. But those actions require people and communication and physical actions to put into place.

"What I'm worried about is [more that] having autonomous robots, or cars, or any other autonomous tool that government can just direct, as an extension of itself. "