Ex-NSA lawyer uses tacky metaphor to slam Apple

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iPhone rain by Dariusz-Sankowski
Ex-NSA counsel Stewart Baker rained on Apple at SXSW this week.
Photo: Dariusz Sanksowski/Pixabay. Licensed via CC0 1.0.

Commentary on the encryption battle between Apple and the U.S. government might have received its strangest metaphor yet.

Stewart Baker, who used to serve as a counsel for the National Security Agency, appeared on a panel at the South by Southwest Interactive festival in Austin this week. During the discussion, he said that Apple’s current, outspoken position in favor of privacy is a recent development and compared it to the sort of PR-driven whitewashing that Hollywood studios have used to promote actresses as “innocent” and “pure.”

“Who remembers Tim Cook before he was a virgin?” Baker said, paraphrasing composer Oscar Levant’s barb at ’60s everygirl Doris Day.

It got a little less polite from there.

“Look at his record in China,” Baker said (via The Guardian). “When China asked, [Apple] didn’t even tell us they were doing it. Other countries are going to request access, and companies are going to give it to them once they demonstrate that they really need it.”

Baker, who represented the NSA from 1992 to 1994, wasn’t even close to being done slapping Apple around. The company is currently in a battle with the federal government over the contents of San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook’s locked iPhone 5s; authorities are asking for an updated version of the mobile OS that will let them get past the passcode lock, but Apple has refused to create what CEO Tim Cook has described as “the software equivalent of cancer.”

The debate has drawn a fairly predictable line, with tech companies like Facebook and Google siding with Apple and government agencies (and their former employees) siding with law enforcement.

Baker’s co-panelist was Matt Blaze, the cryptography researcher who proved the vulnerability of the Clipper Chip in 1994. The Clipper Chip was a previous (failed) attempt to balance security and privacy by providing the government a way to access otherwise encrypted information.

When Baker suggested that Apple’s position on encryption was not socially responsible, saying, “If you take pictures of kids while you are molesting them, [Apple is] going to protect you as well? They need to take into account the misuse of their technology and ask how to fix it,” Blaze pointed out his weird logic.

“That’s like asking if Al Gore is a nice guy relevant to climate change,” he said. “It’s a sideshow.

“These things require a healthy debate that we just haven’t had, and over the course of two crypto-wars, we’ve made remarkably little progress.”

A few days ago, President Obama appeared at SXSW and cautioned against “absolutist” positions on this topic.