Apple, the FBI, Extremists and Strategic Soft Targeting


The FBI and Apple recently squared off over whether or not to unlock the iPhone that belonged to San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizwan Farook. Although the FBI announced on Monday that they had unlocked the phone with the help of a third party, the underlying tensions between Apple and the FBI remain unaddressed. As the national debate continues, it is essential that we frame the discussion correctly and with an eye towards the future.

The FBI seems to be focused on the current status of their technological deficit. The bureau stated quite candidly that their inability to observe the communications of their suspects (or of perpetrators after the fact) has created a parallel world where warrants do not apply, and by extension, neither does the rule of law. On the other hand, Apple is certainly thinking about the future, and how this precedent may expose the communications of dissidents and conforming citizens alike the world over. But if we conceive of their argument as an attempt to protect the privacy of their customers’ communications alone, then we fail to grasp the scope of the privacy that they seek to protect.

Both sides make reasonable and compelling cases, and the complexity of the dilemma spurred Rep. Michael McCaul and Sen. Mark Warner to recommend the creation of a commission to address the issue. Despite the FBI’s circumvention of Apple in the case of Farook’s iPhone, this commission would still be welcome. A commission might define the extent of the issue more comprehensively and accurately, while creating an arena where the national security and tech communities can find compromise solutions for problems yet to arise.

FBI Director James Comey stated on numerous occasions that current mobile platforms and applications allow terrorists to “go dark,” using encrypted channels where emails, texts, or social media posts cannot be seen by those other than the sender and the intended recipient. If only that were the extent of the challenges faced by counterterrorism officials. Smart phones are not merely communications devices, nor repositories for thought or beliefs, but enablers of behaviors. We navigate with them, move money with them, and create media with them. We can even use an application like Yelp to find the perfect restaurant in a new neighborhood, thanks to the combination of geolocation technology and crowd-sourced information.

The FBI is not just fighting to keep up with encrypted communication, but to be poised to deal with the inevitable arrival of encrypted applications that directly enable violent behaviors. Consider the following two characteristics of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s use of technology.

How many months will it be before ISIL and its associated movement combines these two characteristics to create a “Yelp” for assassinations? This application will comb social media platforms and organizational websites for information about the identity and pattern of life of suitable targets, and then deliver that information to aspiring terrorists living within driving distance of the intended victims.

ISIL has already demonstrated a willingness to attack soft targets: to make foreign governments “pay the price” for contesting the terrorist group in Iraq and Syria by attacking civilians in the homeland at random. But given the direction their online and offline behaviors are trending, this wiliness becomes all the more worrisome when we consider how much valuable intelligence one can find and transmit online to geographically dispersed followers. If ISIL wanted to make a combat unit in Iraq or Syria “combat ineffective,” much easier to find an associated and vulnerable soft target in the homeland than defeat that combat unit militarily.

Before I am accused of giving ISIL any insidious ideas, please understand that it has already moved in this direction. In fall 2015, a widow of ISIL released the names, addresses, and photographs of multiple American servicemen. Regarding one serviceman involved in the drone program, she also released photographs of his wife and his children. Should he happen to be deployed, one tweet proclaimed, “just leave him a message :).”

Apple may be right; they make a very compelling argument. But as we weigh both sides of this debate, realize that the FBI is not merely trying to keep up with encrypted communications, but the eventuality of targeted violence against “strategic” soft targets that encrypted applications will enable.


William Braniff is the Executive Director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland. He has previously served as an Officer in the United States Army, as a federal employee at the National Nuclear Security Agency, and as the director of practitioner education at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. His research focuses on domestic and international terrorism and countering violent extremism (CVE).