What does John Oliver bring to the FBI vs. Apple encryption debate?

The satirical news show host weighed in on the FBI's case against Apple, Inc. on the latest episode of his HBO program.

Eric Liebowitz/HBO via AP/File
John Oliver from ""Last Week Tonight with John Oliver."

The debate between Apple, Inc. and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) over the decryption of a terrorist’s iPhone has been simmering for over a month, with advocates on both sides making their points known in the high-profile battle. But now, a new voice has brought the conflict even closer to the public eye: comedian John Oliver.

Mr. Oliver is best known for his former role as a correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and more recently as the host of his HBO program Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, a satirical news show that takes on topics from politics to pop culture to the news of the day.

And he's become a voice to be reckoned with, as CNET noted:

The HBO funnyman can be hugely influential, even on arcane technology matters that the average person might shy away from. Two years ago, he helped draw such massive attention to the issue of Net neutrality that public comment on the matter overwhelmed the government's servers.

On his most recent episode, which aired Sunday night, Oliver addressed the issue of the Apple-FBI encryption dispute in his feature segment.

While Oliver approached the matter with his typical sarcasm and offbeat references, the points raised on his show have serious implications for both the technology and security industries as well as law enforcement.

“You may not think about encryption much, but it is pretty fundamental to all our lives,” Oliver said in the opening to the piece, citing the encoding process’ use in banking, healthcare, location tracking, and more. Oliver ended up arguing on the side of Apple, but made sure to introduce both sides of the issue throughout the show; he explained that Apple may not be able to control an encryption key if it were compelled to develop it, and that the FBI may not necessarily know what to do with such a key if it were created.

In a recent interview with NPR, national security expert and former State Department counterterrorism head Richard Clarke explained that the FBI’s process may be more in line with attempting to set a legal benchmark than actually unlocking the iPhone in question.

“The FBI director is exaggerating the need for [unlocking the phone],” Mr. Clarke said, adding that court orders forcing Apple engineers to “write code that they do not want to write, that will make their systems less secure,” would be a violation of the Constitution because “Computer code is speech.”

“[FBI officials] are not as interested in solving the problem as they are in getting a legal precedent,” he added.

Oliver agreed that the FBI may be moving to diminish technology companies’ power over encryption, rather than simply getting data from the terrorist’s iPhone.

“Whatever happens in this case will have ramifications, because the FBI ultimately wants Apple and the entire tech industry to have its encryption always be weak enough that the company can access customers’ data if law enforcement needs it,” he said.

Oliver went on to discuss those ramifications, including the implication a decision in the FBI’s favor could have outside of the United States legal system. Technology and applications developed internationally, even those focused on privacy, could be drawn in to US policies on digital backdoors and master keys. And foreign governments such as Russia or China would “presumably expect similar access” to what the FBI would get from tech companies in the case that the bureau comes out on top in court.

Oliver’s justification for his support of the Apple side of the argument included “The legal tenuousness of the FBI’s case, the security risks of creating a key, the borderline impossibility of perfectly securing the key, the international fallout of creating a precedent, and the fact that a terrorist could circumvent [encryption concerns]” by downloading various apps already on the market.

“There is no easy side to be on in this debate,” Oliver said.

“Strong encryption has its costs, from protecting terrorists to drug dealers to child pornographers,” he continued. “But I happen to feel that the risks of weakening encryption – even a little bit, even just for the government – are potentially much worse.”

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.