Sunday, December 18, 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Review

Spoiler-free intro

If you haven't seen the movie yet, you might want to not read past the spoiler alert warning below.

So, you've no doubt seen reviews that say Rogue One is the best Star Wars film, and reviews that claim it's utterly disappointing. I liked it a lot, and I think it's a movie that gets better the closer you look at it. I definitely plan to see it again, and see how much more I can pick out of it.

I have a theory about how people's enjoyment of Rogue One related to their overall level of nerdiness, specifically their level of Star Wars nerdiness. The theory goes like this: I think that the graph of enjoyment vs Star Wars nerdiness has two peaks, one on the low end, and one on the high end, with a substantial dip in between.

If you only know the Star Wars films a little bit, or just aren't that much of nerd, in general, Rogue One is a pretty serviceable Sci-Fi action adventure, with some shootouts, some chases, and some amazing visual effects. If you're a super-fan, you get all of that, AND a truly prodigious number of cameos, offhand references, and call-outs to just about every Star Wars movie or TV series, from the original trilogy, to the prequels, to The Force Awakens, to Rogue One  to Rebels. I wouldn't be surprised if there's a reference to the Star Wars Christmas Special hidden in there somewhere.

In the middle, we run into the unfortunate people who just really liked the original 3 films (and maybe The Force Awakens), and are headed into Rogue One expecting more of the same I expect these people to come out a little disappointed with Rogue One, because it's really quite different from the original Star Wars movies. This is, I believe, intentional, and brilliant in its own way, but it's definitely going to turn some people off.

Here are some of the ways in which Rogue One carves out new territory in the Star Wars universe, and some of my favorite bits of clever film-making in it.


Mirrors and reflections

We all remember how the original Star Wars started, I hope. There's the opening text crawl, and then we jump right into the action. A small space ship, fleeing under heavy fire, retreats into the background, and then their pursuer comes into view - a mind-bogglingly-massive grey wedge of death, the Super Star Destroyer.

Roque One has no text crawl, but it does open on a scene in space, relatively peaceful, or so it seems. And then a great grey wedge starts to intrude into the scene. For just a fraction of a moment, your brain says "Oh, it's one of those giant Imperial ships", but then you realize it just doesn't look right, and the camera tilts and pans, revealing that you're looking at the edge of a planetary ring. As you're settling in, waiting to see what happens, a small ship (an Imperial shuttle, this time) crosses the frame, and heads into the background. Where as in Star Wars, we're immediately ready to cheer on the rebels, in this scene, we don't yet know what to think of this spaceship, heading alone down to land on the planet. It's obviously not good news for the locals, though...

So, there's an obvious echo here between the original and the prequel. There's just enough similarity to trip you up if you think you know what you're about to see. It's a bit like watching the original Star Wars through a blurry lens, or in a fun-house mirror. Rogue One does a lot of this.

It's in the nature of sequels, and even more so in the nature of prequels, to be defined to some extent by how they fit together with, and how they differ from, the original film. It's a bit like how people who have a twin will often grow up to define themselves in terms of their differences from their sibling.

As an immediate prequel to the original movie, Rogue One basically ends right where Star Wars begins. This single moment becomes the mirror in which the original Star Wars is reflected both back in time and backwards in outlook.

When The Empire Strikes Back was released, Star Wars was re-titled as Star Wars: A New Hope. What comes before hope? Despair. Rogue One's story picks up at probably the lowest point of the Rebellion agains the Empire. The rebels can't decide on strategy, they've lost control over some of their own best operatives, and now they've learned of a super-weapon, the Death Star, which has been created specifically to crush the rebellion once and for all.

It's very dark in here

Some people have called Rogue One a "dark" film, and that's true on all sorts of different levels. First off, it's actually literally dark in places where the original is light, and vice-versa. Tatooine, the location of most of the beginning of Star Wars, is a blindingly-bright, glaring white sand desert. The first location we visit in Rogue One is a black sand beach, with clouds overhead. It's literally exactly the opposite of Tatooine.

When we first see the main bad guy (Darth Vader) in Star Wars, he's in a black outfit, surrounded by foot soldiers wearing white armor. In Rogue One, the main villain appears wearing a white outfit, accompanied by a squad of stormtroopers in black armor.

This is a fairly subtle bit of film-making, but I think it's brilliant. It could have easily gone some other way, with Orson Krennic, the weapons director, wearing any of the other Imperial uniforms we've seen before, and accompanied by the traditional white-armored Storm Troopers. But it's subtly "off", and sets up the expectation that this movie is not going to follow the familiar conventions and story arcs of the series.

War is hell, and hell is the Middle East (or Jedha)

Somewhat ironically, for a series of films called "Star Wars", the previous films never really touched on the chaos, terror, and moral grey areas of fighting a war. Rogue One finally does that, in a big way. There has been a lot of talk about the "it's a war movie" aspect of the film, with critics comparing it to WWII movies or Vietnam movies. There are obvious parallels there, but this also feels to me like a war movie with its roots in Afghanistan and Syria, a throughly-modern take on the nature of fighting a war.

There's a scene where a group of rebels ambush an Imperial patrol, disabling their armored vehicle and killing the stormtroopers. It's the first real fighting we see in the movie, and it's important for setting the tone of the "rebellion on the ground", as opposed to the "rebellion in theory" that we're introduced to when Jyn meets Mon Mothma and the rest of the Rebel leadership after being rescued from imperial custody.

The whole sequence is just fraught with references to recent middle eastern conflicts. There's the tank ambush itself, which feels like a reference to 1988's The Beast, a film about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Then there are the rebels hiding in caves outside the city proper, a definite nod the the Mujahideen of Afghanistan, as well as the later Al-Qaeda in Pakistan.

The war machines of the Empire are literally powered by the ancient religious treasures of the local population, a reference to both ISIL's destruction of historic sites, and their use of captured oil production infrastructure to finance their war against the governments of the region.

In the middle of the chaos of the tank battle, the nominally-heroic Captain Cassian shoots one of the local rebels, in order to keep Jyn safe. He doesn't even hesitate, he just does it. That kind of divided loyalty is the very essence of modern coalition warfare.

In the end, the Empire solves their rebel "problem" by blasting the entire city from space, with a "precision" shot from the Death Star. Just like the "smart bombs" used in recent real-world conflicts, the single-reactor shot from the Death Star does far less damage than the Empire is easily capable of, but it still causes massive amounts of "collateral damage". It's a very Apocalypse Now, "We had to destroy the village in order to save it" moment.

And speaking of Apocalypse Now, what about Saw Gerrera? Here's a high-ranking Rebel commander, who's gone off the grid on Jedha, commanding his own personal band of fanatics in a mountain stronghold, leading guerrilla attacks on the Imperial troops, in a way that the "official" rebellion leadership does't approve of. The Rebel leadership dispatches an intelligence officer / field agent to track Gerrerra down, but because this film doesn't perfectly copy any of its inspirations, Captain Caspian isn't ordered to kill Gerrerra, but instead is supposed to use him to find Galen Erso, who he is ordered (secretly) to kill.

You call these people "heroes"?

We've got Galen Erso, a collaborator, complete with the classic "If I didn't do it, they'd just get someone else to" excuse. He tries to sabotage the Empire's war machine form the inside, perhaps in guilt over what he's helped to build. In the end, this man, who nobody in the rebellion will even remember, is in fact the only reason the Empire didn't manage to totally destroy the Rebellion, one planet at a time.

Saw Gerrera, an insane ex-rebel, who's decided to fight the war on his own terms. Bodhi Rook, the Imperial shuttle pilot, defects on Galen Erso's orders. He's supposed to take the news of the Death Star's weakness to the rebellion. Unfortunately, Erso sends him to Gerrera, not knowing that his former friend has gone off the deep end. Gerrera's men blindfold Rook, in a scene that echoes the CIA's "extraordinary rendition" program, and deliver him to Gerrara, who tortures Rook, just to be sure of the truth of the message from his former friend. After torturing him, Gerrera just discards Rook, even though we later learn that it would take very little actual effort to help him recover from his experience.

Let's hear it for Captain Cassian. He's the anti- Han Solo. Instead of being a smuggler who reluctantly gets pulled into the rebellion, he's a Special Ops soldier who's engaged in all sorts of dirty tactics for the rebellion, a man who's so completely bought in to the cause, that's he's perfectly happy to lie to everybody who's working with him, and accept a mission to use a young woman to get to her father, then assassinate him. When he finally has that moment of clarity, and realizes that he can't just execute Erso in cold blood, it actually feels like it means something.

And then there's the hero/viewpoint character, Jyn. She's an orphan, of course (what is it with orphans in Star Wars?), but instead of secretly being the child of the big bad guy, who's been raised by the rebels until she can challenge her parent and save the galaxy, she's...basically a nobody. Her father's kind of important to the Death Star project, but I'd bet that other than his boss (who has a much higher opinion of his skills than even Erso does), nobody in the Imperial hierarchy has even heard of him.

Miscellaneous cool bits

Darth Vader is back, and he's completely terrifying. The scene in Vader's castle establishes the quiet menace with which Vader keeps the Empire under tight control. And the scene at the end of Rogue One, where he's in full-on psycho killer mode, stabbing rebel soldiers left and right, slicing through bulkheads? That's the Vader we know from the end of The Empire Strikes Back, and from the climactic lightsaber duel at the end of Return of The Jedi - a dark Jedi who's perfectly willing to give in to his hate, to his savage bloodlust, and use that power to beat down whatever gets in his way. Also a great call-out to The Force Awakens' Kylo Ren, who has those same emotional tendencies, without the control to go with it.

I love everything about Chirrut Îmwe, the blind monastic warrior. He's not a Jedi Knight, but he's everything that we loved about Ben Kenobi from the original, and he finally puts the "Midichlorian" nonsense from the prequels to rest for good. The Force isn't a bacterial infection, it's a mystical connection between every living thing, and if you believe, if you give yourself over to it, you can achieve amazing things.

One subtle bit that I loved was his reciting his mantra, walking utterly unharmed through a killing field of covering fire, right up to the control console for the communication relay...and then totally fumbling for the switch. Because of course, he can't just see the switch - he's blind. He can "see" all of the soldiers via the Force, he can get all of them to miss him (or maybe not shoot in his particular direction?), but the switch is just a dead metal lever - it can't be easily seen or influenced through the Force.

Alan Tudyk plays K-2SO, who's a sarcastic pilot who dies on the final mission to try to "get the signal out". That one's a bit heavy-handed by Rogue One standards, but I loved Firefly, so I'll let that one slide.

And this is now two Star Wars films in a row with a female lead, and a major secondary male character, who don't fall in love, but do develop a strong friendship through their adventures. I get really sick of the idea that every movie needs to have a romantic sub-plot, and I'm glad to see the idea of platonic friendships between men and women being treated as just as relevant as romantic entanglements.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Apple vs the FBI

What's up with Apple and the FBI?

Several of my friends and family have asked me about this case, which has been in the news a lot recently. A whole lot of news stories have been written trying more-or-less successfully to explain what's going on here, often with ill-fitting analogies to locks and keys, and it seems like a lot of people (including some of our presidential candidates) are just as confused about what's going on now as they were when the whole thing started. The Wired article above is really very good, but it's long, fairly-technical, and doesn't cover the non-technical side of things particularly well.

So, since y'all asked, here are some of my thoughts on the case. I'm going to be kind of all over the map here, because I've gotten questions about the moral side of things as well as the technical. I'm going to mostly skip over the legal side of things (because I'm unqualified to comment), except for a couple of specific points.

On the off-chance that someone stumbles across this who doesn't already know who I am, I'm a computer programmer, and I have worked on encryption and digital security software for a number of different companies, including 3 of the 5 largest PC manufacturers.

I'm going to try to stay away from using any analogies, and just explain the actual technology involved as simply as I can, since I know you can handle a bit of jargon, and the analogy-slinging I see on Facebook isn't making things any clearer for people, as far as I can see. There will be links to Wikipedia articles in here. You don't need to read them, but they are there in case you want to read more about those subjects.

First, a very quick run-down of what this is all about:
  • The FBI has an iPhone that was used by Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the shooters in the San Bernardino shootings last December.
  • The phone is locked (of course), and the FBI wants Apple to help them unlock it, and in fact has a court order requiring Apple to do so.
  • Apple is refusing to do what the FBI wants, for some fairly-complicated reasons.
  • A whole lot of people, including information security experts, law experts, and politicians, have weighed in on how they think this should go.

So, what's my take on all this?

Encryption does not work the way you might think it does, from watching movies or TV.

In the movies, you always see "hackers" running some piece of software that puts up a progress bar, and the software makes gradual progress over the course of seconds or minutes, until the encryption is "broken", and the spy gets access to the data they need. In the real world, unless the encryption implementation is fundamentally-broken by design, the only way to break in is by trying every possible key (we call this a "brute force attack"), and there are an enormous number of possible keys. You could get in with the very first key you try, or you might end up checking every possible key before you find the right one. Nothing about this process gives you any information about whether you're "close" to getting the right key, or whether you've still got billions of keys to try.

The data on the iPhone is encrypted with a key long enough that trying to decrypt it through brute force is essentially impossible.

The data on the iPhone is encrypted using AES, the Advanced Encryption Standard, which was developed by the US government for companies like Apple to use to secure data for their customers. as far as anybody knows, brute-force is the only way to attack AES, and with a 256-bit key (as is used on the iPhone), it'd take literally billions of years to try every possible key, if you used all of the computing power in the world.

Apple doesn't have that key to hand it over to the FBI

The key used to encrypt data on the iPhone is derived from a combination of a device-specific key, and the pass-code which the user has set on the phone. There's no way to extract the device-specific key from the phone, and there's no record of which phone uses which device-specific key. This is done on purpose, because if you could get that data, it'd make it much easier for anyone to extract your personal data from your phone.

Given that you can't get the device-specific key, then even if all of the data was extracted from the phone, you'd be faced with performing a brute-force attack on the encryption (which is impossible, see above).

You don't need the device-specific key if you can guess the pass-code to the phone

Obviously, if the phone has a 4-digit pass-code, you only need to try 1,000 10,000 different codes in order to unlock it (0000-9999). You could sit an FBI intern down in a cubicle with the phone, and a day or so later, it'd be unlocked. That'd be a really boring shift for them, but you could still do it. If the phone has a 6-digit lock code, that becomes substantially less-convenient, and you're into the range of a full-time job for a year or more.

But you might not be able to do that either, depending on the phone's settings. One of the security settings you can set on the iPhone is for it to erase the data on the phone after 10 incorrect password attempts. The FBI seems to think that this option is enabled for Farook's iPhone.

Here's what the FBI says that they want Apple to do

The FBI wants Apple to produce a custom version of iOS (the iPhone software), and load it onto Farook's iPhone, to enable them to quickly try all of the possible pass-codes.

This custom software would:

  1. Disable the "erase after 10 incorrect codes are entered" feature (of course)
  2. Allow the FBI to feed possible pass-codes to the iPhone from a connected computer, rather than requiring some poor intern to enter each one by hand.
  3. Reduce the amount of time required between entering each code, so they can check them faster. That wouldn't matter if there was a 4-digit code set, so maybe Farook used a longer code.

Can Apple do it?

Apparently so, or at least Apple CEO Tim Cook hasn't made the claim that they can't comply with the court order, just that they shouldn't be required to. It probably would not be that much work, actually. Items 1 and 3 up there should be trivially-easy to change, and #2 is probably not a huge amount of work for someone who's familiar with interfacing the iPhone to a PC. Somewhere between "one guy working over the weekend" and "two guys working on it for a week" is probably a reasonable guess.

Here's why Apple says that they shouldn't be forced to do this

It's a violation of their customers' privacy

Tim Cook says in his open letter that the FBI's request amounts to:
The government is asking Apple to hack our own users and undermine decades of security advancements that protect our customers — including tens of millions of American citizens — from sophisticated hackers and cybercriminals. 
Earlier models of the iPhone were much simpler for Apple to bypass the pass-code on, and they've expended substantial effort over the last few revisions to make it much harder for people to break into iPhones (and newer ones are even more-secure than the phone in this case). This is valuable protection for the individual customers' data, and has contributed in large part to reducing the number of phones stolen, since they can be locked in such a way that they can't be easily re-sold. This same cryptographic technology is also what keeps trade secret information that's stored on businesspeople's phones from being copied as a matter of course overtime they travel to any foreign country.

This is not a normal subpoena, it's a special court order

Normally, law enforcement agencies will get a court order to compel a company or individual to turn over information or physical evidence that is relevant to a particular investigation. Apple has cooperated in previous investigations (and even in this specific case) with those sorts of orders. This is something else entirely.

Using the All Writs Act, an obscure 18th-century law, the FBI is trying to force Apple to engage in an activity that they wouldn't otherwise do (and which will have a negative impact on their business and customers). The All Writs act has some significant restrictions in terms of when it can be invoked, but there's remarkably-little restriction on what a court can use it to order.

Once the FBI successfully uses the All Writs Act to force Apple to produce a custom version of iOS, they will have established a precedent where they can use it to compel Apple (or any other technology company) to take whatever actions they think might be helpful to aid any investigation they might launch. Lest you think I'm veering into conspiracy-theory territory here, consider the following:

Several statements that the FBI has made to the court and in the news are either extremely naive or deliberately misleading.

The FBI has made statements both in their court filings and in the press which are simply untrue. If it weren't for the fact that the people making these claims are actual forensics experts (or work with such experts), I'd be inclined to say that they just don't know what they're talking about. Given that they do work for the FBI, I think it's reasonable to hold them to a much higher standard of clueful-ness.

It's just for this one phone for this one investigation

I can't believe that anybody would think they could get this argument past a judge. Of course if this tool exists, the FBI (and every other police/security agency in the US and every other country in the world) will require that a this custom firmware version be loaded on whatever iPhones they might have picked up in the course of an investigation. And it'd be so much easier if they could just hold on to the firmware themselves, and apply it themselves to iPhones where they have a warrant. This isn't even a "slippery slope" argument, it's just what will obviously happen.

Several news articles have mentioned China, but really any country that has a poor human rights record would obviously misuse this tool, if it was available. In particular, the Gulf states have an atrocious record on human rights, and a track record of forcing technology companies to compromise customer security to make things easier on their state security agencies (See: Saudi Arabia and Blackberry).

There may be critical information on this phone that leads to other terrorists that Farook was in contact with.

It's very unlikely that there's actually any information on this phone that'd be useful to the FBI investigation. First off, this isn't even Farook's personal phone. It's the work phone that was issued to him by his employer, the County of San Bernardino. I mean, you can never underestimate the intelligence of criminals, but what kind of idiot would plan their attack on a county facility using their county-supplied phone?

In any case, Farook destroyed his own personal phone, as well as a laptop and several other devices, before carrying out the attack. If he went to all that trouble to destroy evidence, it seems unlikely that he just plain forgot to destroy his work phone. It's much more-likely that there was never anything remotely-incriminating on it to begin with.

Secondly, the FBI already has access to backups of that phone all the way up to 1 month before the attack. So they'd only be potentially getting information that was added to the phone in the last couple of weeks before the attack.

And finally, almost all of the relevant data you might get from that phone is already in the FBI's hands through other channels. They've already got access to the call records, emails, and other communications from that phone and Farook's other devices.

Apple can make this hack so that it only works on this one iPhone, eliminating any risk to Apple's other customers.

Well, sure, in a trivial sense. In a much more-significant sense, this is a content-free statement. In the trivial sense, Apple cannot course add extra code to this custom version of iOS so that it only works on Farook's phone. But really, they can't do that - they have to test it first, of course, so that means it has to be installable on at least two phones. And it'd obviously be trivial to change which phones it works on later, which brings us back to the original "it's only for this one phone" nonsense above.

Additionally, this runs into conflict with the requirements of the "All Writs Act", which is the justification for this order. They're not allowed to create an "undue burden" on Apple, and having Apple set up a whole new internal process for creating thousands of custom versions of iOS for every investigation in which it might be useful is not a trivial thing.

Right now, Apple needs to be very careful about which OS updates it digitally "signs", which is the process that's needed to allow the software to be installed on customers' phones. There are hundreds or maybe thousands of Apple employees who have access to the tools and the source code to make changes in iOS. But that final step of signing an update is necessarily restricted, because the key for that process allows you to say to the world "this software is approved by Apple". They're presumably quite careful with that key. You can make the argument (and people have) that digitally-signing a file is essentially the same as a physical signature, and you shouldn't be able to compel someone to sign something digitally any more than you can legally compel them to sign a physical piece of paper.

I don't know about Apple, but at one of my former employers, we kept our code-signing key, and the laptop with the software for signing our updates, physically locked up in a safe. The key was actually split into multiple parts, which were only accessible to certain people. Because if you can sign software, you can make it do anything you want. You can remove the DRM which is used to secure purchased content, steal all of a customer's personal data, anything.

There's a larger issue at stake here - the very idea of privacy is under attack

Ever since the ratification of the Bill Of Rights, there has been a back-and-forth argument in this country over the right balance between the citizen's right to privacy, and the state's need for security. Since the development of effective commercial cryptography in the late 20th century, the debate has gotten significantly more-heated.

Privacy is a basic right, guaranteed by the Bill of Rights here in the US

The 4th Amendment to the US Constitution says:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

This controls the sorts of searches that the police (FBI, etc) can perform. In particular, they need probable cause, and a court-issued warrant. Over the last few centuries, that's been dialed back a bit, and US citizens are routinely searched without a warrant, and without probable cause. But there are still limits, and if you, your home, or your stuff is unreasonably-searched, you can contest that in court (and you might even win).

When the constitution was written, the founding fathers could not have imagined the sort of surveillance technology we have today.

In 1789, if you wanted to have a private conversation with a friend or family member, you could take them aside into a room, or go for a walk in the woods, and if you couldn't see anybody else, chances are nobody would overhear what you had to say. With a wax seal on your mail, you could see whether it had been tampered with (or read by someone else) in transit.

Modern communication systems (email, telephone, chat) are much easier to listen in on, and when new technology comes along, it has typically taken a while for the Supreme Court to come to the conclusion that whatever new-fangled communication system you use, it's essentially the same as a letter, for legal purposes. Tapping phone lines without a warrant used to be totally legal. Same with intercepting email and other electronic communications.

The question of whether or not you can be compelled to unlock your own phone, even if it contains potentially-incriminating evidence, is possibly still open, despite the fact that that seems like an obvious violation of the 5th Amendment.

Strong encryption flips the balance of privacy back to the way things were in the 18th century

When you have access to strong encryption, you have privacy by default. This is as it should be. Until the early 1990s, most encryption that was available commercially was just terrible. Since the development of the World Wide Web, the level of sophistication of the cryptography available to individuals and commercial users has vastly improved.

The US government has fought the availability of effective encryption for decades

After World War II, a war which the Allies won in part due to their ability to decrypt German secret messages, the US government set up the NSA to ensure that they had a lead in cryptographic technology. And until the growth of academic cryptographic research in the 1980s and 1990s, their expertise was unmatched. The NSA has a weird double mission. On the one hand, they're supposed to protect US military and civilian communications from foreign spies. On the other side, they're supposed to develop ways to break encryption used by other organizations, to support US intelligence-gathering. When it comes to commercial encryption, these goals are directly in conflict.

When the first truly effective encryption systems began to become commercially available, the NSA tried to keep their ability to listen in on communications by restricting the length of keys that could be used in software that was being exported. Eventually, it became obvious that that was only going to disadvantage US software makers, and the restriction was lifted.

During the Clinton administration, the NSA proposed Clipper, a cryptography system that would make it easy for law enforcement to listen in on communications (with a warrant, at least in principle), but would be very difficult for foreign governments, hackers, and others to break. It turned out to have a number of fundamental flaws, and was pretty quickly killed.

More-recently, the NSA has been possibly caught inserting a flaw into a security standard that they helped develop.

Law enforcement and security agencies now have much greater ability to collect data that's not specifically protected with encryption

Despite better security of communications overall, the security apparatus has continued to press the boundaries of what information they can gather without a proper warrant. Here are a few recent(wish) examples.

The FISA court

In order to allow allow Federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies to obtain search warrants, without having to publicly disclose what they're searching for, and who they're searching, Congress created a parallel court system, the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court. This court provides search warrants, and has been involved in issuing court orders to compel commercial companies to cooperate with the NSA in collecting data, including information on US citizens, which the NSA is explicitly barred from collecting.

Telephone metadata collection

The NSA has been, for many years, collecting telephone meta-data (who's calling whom) for essentially all telephone call placed inside the United States (and several other countries). This only came to light because of Edward Snowden's whistle-blowing, because of course they got the authority for that from the secret FISA court.


The StingRay system is basically a "fake" cell tower that broadcasts a signal that causes every mobile phone within range to report its location. They can be used to track the location of mobile-phone users in bulk, and can also apparently be used to intercept calls. These systems have been provided to local police forces via grants from the Department of Homeland Security, and they're used in a variety of ways that are at best quasi-legal (in that they haven't been specifically declared illegal yet).

Automated number plate readers

These machines are just about everywhere. They're used to automatically collect tolls, the police use them to search for cars that are associated with wanted criminals, repo men use them to look for cars that the owners have stopped making payments on, etc, etc. My local city has them mounted on the parking enforcement golf-carts, so they can just cruise down the street and collect the location and license plate numbers of every single car parked anywhere in the city.

And again, there's no law telling either the police or the private companies what they can or can't do with this information, so it gets used (and mis-used) for all sorts of things. The police have no need and no right to know where my car is at all times, as long as I'm actually following the parking rules.

What happens now?

I think there's a good chance that the court will make the "right" decision here, and side with Apple after considering their response. Either way, you should expect that Apple (and other manufacturers) will make additional efforts to ensure that they themselves cannot circumvent their own security systems. If the court makes the "wrong" decision, then there will be a whole lot more of these court orders issued in the near future, and that's bad news for privacy.