Digital privacy and how it balances with law enforcement investigations have been at the forefront of debate for years now, and the new battleground is a case between Apple and the FBI. Tech companies have mostly been siding with Apple on behalf of privacy, while the public seems to be mostly on the side of the FBI, according to a recent poll.
The issue is whether the iPhone maker should help the agency unlock the iPhone recovered from Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the terrorists who killed 14 people and injured many others in a mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif. in December. Thus far the company has refused to comply with a court order stating that it must help the FBI hack the iPhone by writing software that would enable government hackers to unlock it.
Certainly there are good arguments for and against unlocking the phone, and Apple has found itself between a rock and a hard place.
Apple supports privacy over public protection
On Apple’s side we have the National Security Agency’s digital spying program, which was revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The program indicated that government officials not only were spying on known and suspected terrorists and criminals but also on average American citizens who just go about their business on a daily basis. This understandably caused a public uproar in which tech companies, including Apple, lambasted the government for its broad-based spying program.
The fear in unlocking Farook’s iPhone is that it will set a legal precedent that would force tech companies to comply in a similar fashion in the future, opening the door to possibly violating the privacy of every American who owns an iPhone at some point.
And then there’s the simple creation of the software, which is meant to break through the end-to-end encryption which is keeping investigators from seeing what’s on the iPhone. Although the court order requests that it include an identifier so that it would only work on Farook’s phone, government hackers (or nefarious ones if they get their hands on it) could potentially use the software on any iPhone by simply changing that identifier. The simple existence of the software could put average Americans’ privacy at risk.
Not such an easy decision
And so Apple has found itself in a conundrum that’s not easily solved, although the company has made its choice and stands behind it with the intent of dealing with the consequences of not complying with the court order. Indeed, the iPhone maker makes it seem like choosing a side is a no-brainer. Some argue that Apple is far more worried about its brand image as a protector of privacy that it is willing to put the public at risk by not aiding the FBI in its investigation.
However, an outsider might see a much more difficult decision. Notably, Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates disputed reports that he sides with the FBI in this battle. He told Bloomberg that he doesn’t place his full support behind the agency or Apple. Instead, he wants to see a careful balance of government power versus security. He also disputed the argument that any software Apple creates to hack Farook’s iPhone could be used repeatedly, comparing the dispute to bank records in an interview with the Financial Times.
“Let’s say the bank had tied a ribbon round the disk drive and said, ‘Don’t make me cut this ribbon because you’ll make me cut it many times.'”
The public wants answers
It seems pretty clear that the public is siding with the FBI in this fight because of the basic need to answer the big question that keeps popping up in life: “Why?” The victims who survived the San Bernardino shooting publicly support the FBI because they want answers. Why did Farook and his wife target the Health Department meeting? Why did they carry out the mass shooting? What caused them to become extremists? And there are certainly more.
The FBI undoubtedly wants answers to these questions and more. For example, are there any other homegrown terrorists who were in contact with Farook that they should be watching to avert another potential attack? What were his thoughts before the attack? What goes into the creation of a terrorist who lives in the U.S. but is so influenced by extremist groups like ISIS that they carry out such a horrific attack? Is there anything else agents need to know to keep the American people safe?
And then there’s the fact that Farook and his wife are both dead, having been killed by law enforcement within hours of the mass shooting. Is it really so important to protect the privacy of dead people who killed lots of innocent people? This is especially true when investigators might be able to recover information about homegrown terrorist cells in the U.S.
So what’s the answer?
And thus, Bill Gates’ call for a moderate approach seems the most sensible one. But just how can tech companies restrict authorities’ activities when it comes to digital privacy? They have attempted to take their hands off privacy entirely by adopting end-to-end encryption, which means they don’t have users’ information and can’t even read any of it and thus can’t provide it to law enforcement.
But the FBI’s battle with Apple takes the privacy issue to a whole new level. It means that officials won’t let tech companies off the hook so easily. They’re not satisfied with the answer that such firms can’t provide them with information because they have tied their own hands through end-to-end encryption.
So this issue is in the hands of the courts right now. A big problem with this is that the people who will be deciding it probably aren’t tech gurus who fully understand all that is possible with technology and especially end-to-end encryption. The key is to place a limit on law enforcement while also allowing them to do what they need to do to protect the public. Just how this can be achieved, however, is unclear for now.
It may well be that average Americans who have nothing to hide will have to be willing to risk their privacy in order to help authorities keep them safe. And if the recent Pew Research poll tells us anything, in this particular case, most people are willing to do it.