A few weeks ago, I wrote about the ongoing privacy battle between Apple and the FBI over an encrypted iPhone belonging to the employer of Syed Farook — one of the San Bernardino attackers. I asked what you thought, and most people agreed that Apple is right to resist … but a few people disagreed.
A favorite argument of the pro-FBI folks is that an iPhone is simply an extension of telephone technology, which, under current law, can be tapped with a warrant. The courts have ruled that telephone companies have to help tap their phone lines, so why is Apple any different? The FBI and Attorney General Loretta Lynch both make this argument.
I remain unconvinced. I think smartphones (and computers) are qualitatively different from all previous forms of communication, like letters, telegrams and telephones … so much so that the precedent the government seeks in the San Bernardino iPhone case leads in a very different direction — one that we should all fear.
So read on, and let me know what you think…
Science Fiction Is Now Science Fact
Longtime readers will know that, like my father Bob Bauman, I like literary science fiction — especially Philip K. Dick of Blade Runner fame. Dick commonly addresses the ethical and political issues related to technological advancement, not just rocket ships and teleportation.
Dick’s story (and the Steven Spielberg film) Minority Report asks what could happen if a technology arises that allows government to see inside our heads. In Dick’s story, this capacity is abused by wayward government officials for personal gain. (Strictly speaking, it involves psychics who can see our future actions; not mind reading, but the logic is the same.) Dick could easily have written the same story around an entire government abusing its powers.
Here’s where the Apple case comes in. Unlike a telephone, which is merely a means of communication, smartphones store and process private information. Indeed, most of us are likely to store information on a smartphone that we wouldn’t convey on an ordinary telephone call, such as bank balances or credit card details. These are things we would affirmatively avoid transmitting by phone.
To me, that means that the telephone precedent is irrelevant to the Apple case. An iPhone is effectively an extension of the human brain, which is the main thing we use to store and process information. In the Apple case, the government is basically saying that it wants the authority to get inside what, in effect, is an extension of our brains — our digital heads. That’s way beyond a wiretap … that’s Minority Report territory.
The (Im)Morality of Possibility
The government argues that since courts have decided that telephone wiretaps are OK, therefore so is the FBI’s demand that Apple decrypt the iPhone.
But if smartphones are a qualitatively new technology that extends the innately private human capacity to store and process information, then the government is dramatically expanding its powers on a false premise. A smartphone is to a telephone what a supercomputer is to an adding machine. One can store huge amounts of information — the other can just perform a simple task that leaves no trace behind.
Under the government’s logic, what if someone developed the technology to read the human mind? Would that, too, be subject to a government warrant on the grounds of the “telephone” precedent? Should the scientists who develop such a technique be compelled to use it to help government read our minds … for example, if the government says we are “terrorists”?
The Apple-FBI case suggests that the government would answer “yes.” That’s because the government’s attitude toward our right to privacy is based not on what is legally right, but on what is technically possible. As far as the government is concerned, the former changes right along with the latter, and every new technology reduces our rights accordingly.
Privacy: Where Does It End?
Anyone who pays attention to history knows that this is always the logic of power. If something new becomes possible that allows those in power to increase their domination over us, its use will be rationalized one way or another.
After all, governments didn’t use the massive growth of computing power that started with WWII code-breaking to cure disease, end poverty or anything else beneficial to humankind. Instead, they invested billions in computing power to surveil us, tax us, manipulate us, and if need be, kill us.
By the way, their excuse from 1945 to 1989 was that they were trying to “protect” us from a horrible bogeyman out to get us … in that case, communism. Now it’s terrorism. If something else has changed besides the rationale for our loss of freedom, I’m all ears.
So count me unimpressed by the argument that we’ve already consented to universal decryption based on the telephone precedent. In fact, I oppose the telephone precedent itself.
But I’m not going to wait for the government or anyone else to make decisions about my privacy. I’m going to get one of these. Good luck to the FBI then!
Editor, The Bauman Letter