Here’s what John Oliver got right when weighing in on the Apple v. FBI encryption battle
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Photo Credit: LastWeek Tonight / YouTube

To his credit, Oliver did a decent job of laying out how encryption plays an important role in ensuring how we communicate

When pop culture canary in the coal mine John Oliver decides to wade into the debate over whether Apple should comply with demands from the FBI that they crack their encryption model to access San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook’s iPhone 5C, you know that things have gotten serious (or old news).

On his Sunday night broadcast for his HBO show, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, the former Daily Show correspondent performed an earnest attempt at explaining to his partially informed audience about why they should care that the U.S. government wants the tech giant to give them a hand in breaking into this phone.

To his credit, Oliver did a decent job of laying out how encryption plays an important role in ensuring how we communicate, do business, and keep some of our most intimate details private.

Moreover, he tackled the more complex questions that many people have been asking about why Apple was refusing to cooperate with the government. Under normal circumstances, most folks expect corporate entities to play ball with the feds when issued a valid order to do so. Like most of Silicon Valley, Apple has been more than happy to give the government plenty of data like Farook’s iCloud backups. The issue is that we are not in Kansas anymore with this case.

The point that Oliver really hit home on was that if Apple works to undermine its security features here, this will not be a one-off incident. The fact is that if the company creates a new version of iOS to undermine the security feature that will allow the government to use brute force to break into the phone without tripping the erase function that is activated after ten incorrect attempts at the passcode, then this new software could be used on every other iPhone around the world.

The U.S. government has a pretty lousy record of keeping their cyber data secret and safe, so the argument that this would never fall into the wrong hands of criminals or unfriendly governments is far from sound.

Then there’s the issue that nobody believes the government will really respect the one-time use. If they are given the chance, it is safe to assume that they will continue to use this exploit to sneak into devices at will.

In the clip, the NYPD’s John Miller Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence and Counterterrorism is shown saying that after this one-time use, Apple could crumple up the code and toss it in a fire. As the former Associate Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Analytic Transformation and Technology, Miller should have known how unintelligible that concept is. Once something like this is created, it never disappears. One can only hope that he is consciously lying, and not totally ignorant of how technology works.

Oliver’s report cites how prosecutors in New York have already asked for 175 iPhones in their custody to be unlocked after this case is resolved, a request that would be hard to turn down if Apple gave into the FBI, setting a precedent.

He tells viewers to think of the government as their dads, saying that, “If he asks you to help him with his iPhone, be careful because if you do it once, you’re going to be doing it 14 times a day.”

Photo Credit: LastWeek Tonight / YouTube

Photo Credit: Last Week Tonight / YouTube

Like most topics Oliver covers, he does a reasonably good job at going after the low hanging fruit of the issue. He arrives at the right conclusions that most of us would agree with when presented with the basic facts, and to his credit he does lay the situation out well enough for a chimp to understand.

As probably one of the smarter people on TV today, Oliver has the potential to be the best voice for explaining tough issues to the wider public, but needs to set his sights on putting out higher quality journalism that doesn’t make folks nod their head like, “Ok, so what?”

It is cute how he identifies apps like Telegram, which has been popular with ISIS fanboys and girls, as providing high level encryption. While the app’s creator Pavel Durov deserves love for having made a great app, it is probably not the first app on the FBI’s shit list. Even less so is WhatsApp, which while exceedingly useful, should not be categorized as a privacy app. For more comprehensive privacy, look to Open Whisper System’s Signal. This is probably the most secure communication app out there, and a favorite of privacy martyr Edward Snowden.

Thankfully, Oliver boils down through a moderately amusing summation at the end that the entirety of privacy and security sits on the head of a pin. The security teams at Apple, along with everyone else that handles our data, are at best always one step ahead of those looking to cause us harm. Whether this is a cause for concern or not, hopefully viewers left a little more informed about the precarious nature of their data and the security ecosystem.

Featured Image Credit: LastWeek Tonight / YouTube

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Gabriel Avner

About Gabriel Avner


Gabriel has an unhealthy obsession with new messaging apps, social media and pretty much anything coming out of Apple. An experienced security and conflict consultant, he has written for The Diplomatic Club, the Marine War College, and covers military affairs with TLV1 radio. He mostly enjoys reading articles wherever his ADD leads him to and training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. EEED 44D4 B8F4 24BE F77E 2DEA 0243 CBD1 3F7C F4B6

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  • Topkat

    Geektime? Really? And you can’t even get your page display right? Unless I take the rather weird step of resizing my display window so that I can see the left margin of text.

  • Lefty Grove

    The author sneers at John Oliver, but John Oliver can use words like “salient” correctly.

  • jmscnny.

    I think someone needs to remind Gabriel Avner that John Oliver is a comedian, not an experienced security and conflict consultant or a tepid journalist for Geektime. The fact that Oliver can do Avner’s job better than he ever will be capable of doing it, really does not give him the right to launch into smug self-righteous commentary from the safety of his bedroom in his mom’s house.
    Wouldn’t it be cute if Avner could step up and go after some of that untouched high hanging fruit to which he alludes? Or maybe he is just waiting for someone else to do his job for him. Again.

    • Egor Ananyev

      two reactions: “ouch!” and “amen!”

  • Anne Nonimus

    ” Oliver has the potential to be the best voice for explaining tough issues to the wider public, but needs to set his sights on putting out higher quality journalism …. ”

    Clearly the writer doesn’t fully grasp the simple fact that Last Week Tonight is a comedy show that happens to use carefully researched facts to make important points, and not in fact, a News show. Too bad real news shows are too interested in airing useless pop culture fluff and the usual coy banter to do as good a job as Oliver.

  • Rapajez

    “The security teams at Apple, along with everyone else that handles our data, are at best always one step ahead of those looking to cause us harm.” — exactly why INTENTIONALLY causing harm is pure insanity!

  • Mushfeq

    Um… so what are the nuances that Oliver’s missing? You just repeated what he said in the video. I’d love to know what additional insight you have about this issue.

  • jones19876

    I get the feeling the journalist had to rely on this comedy sketch to better understand the gist of this debate.