Skeleton key security

Nearly 40 years ago, my family moved to a typical Maritime neighbourhood. Something that stands out in my memory (aside from the nightmarish floral-print wallpaper in my bedroom), was that my bedroom door and the bathroom door each had skeleton keys in their locks. I’d only seen skeleton keys in movies before.

skeleton key illustration

It wasn’t long before I discovered that these keys — while not quite identical — were interchangeable: each key could unlock the other door.

Not only that, it turned out that these keys worked in all of the doors in the house, including the front door. Every key was a master key.

Even then, as an elementary school student, this made me wonder why there were locks at all, since anyone inside the house could always access a key and enter any locked room.

I remember sharing this discovery with my father. He laughed. Having grown up in a world full of skeleton keys, he wasn’t surprised, but took it one step further. “Those keys probably open every door in the neighbourhood”, he said.

This was the mid–1970s. Paranoia was not running high, and neither were the crime rates (they still aren’t). It didn’t take me long to discover that most of the houses nearby only had skeleton key locks on their front doors (I now suspect most homes weren’t even locked most of the time).

I don’t remember whose door I tried, or whether I had the sense to make sure they weren’t home at the time, but my bedroom door key unlocked the first neighbour’s house I tried it on.

That’s when it hit home: this was a really bad idea.

Who would want to live in a neighbourhood where you could lock your doors, thinking it made you safe, but literally anyone could unlock them? (As I recall, one of the first changes my parents made was to install modern locks.)

This is what the FBI-vs-Apple case boils down to.

It’s not about terrorism; that’s an excuse. It’s not about trusting that the authorities will only act in good faith (court order in hand). It’s not even primarily about privacy.

It’s about security.

Set aside for a moment any discussion about who you consider to be a good guy (under what circumstances). Set aside arguments based on emotional blackmail (“terrorists will kill people if we can’t unlock a phone”).

Demanding that Apple create backdoors only for the good guys is impossible. You might as well insist that a lock manufactured in 1912 only works for people in possesion of the key if they have noble intentions. That kind of thinking only works in the world of Harry Potter and its Ministry of Magic.

What is the FBI asking Apple for? They want Apple to build in a master skeleton key that lets its possessors access everyone’s smartphones, their private email, text messages, Facebook messages, their banking and ecommerce transactions, everything.

Maybe you think that’s perfectly fine for the good guys (with their court orders) to have, but what about hostile foreign governments, thieves, stalkers, predators, and (yes) terrorists? What about a government 20 years from now or a government run by those dangerous idiots you can’t believe anyone would ever vote for (yet they do)?

Math — the heart of encryption is mathematics — works the same for everyone. There’s no special good-guys-only section at the back of the math books (if there was, the bad guys would read it). It doesn't stop at the border of the United States, either. The skeleton key the FBI is demanding will be universal, even if that’s not their intention.

Make no mistake: there’s no middle ground here. Either we all get secure locks, or everyone's doors get left wide open.