FBI versus Apple raises difficult questions about privacy

The FBI versus Apple debate is far from clear cut, and whatever the ruling it could have long-term positive and negative repercussions for our individual and national security. When all is said and done, it should not be that Apple or the American federal government has the power to hack into our personal devices to fight real and imagined bad guys – and at the moment I think it is anyone’s game.

The Privacy Company tells us that since iOS8, the authorities and Apple itself are unable to hack devices in their possession, and they do not plan to change their tune any time soon. Americans who support these security measures are not doing so to aid the ‘bad guys’, they are doing it to protect themselves and their privacy, which is clearly not the priority of law enforcement. Players from the left advocate for encryption because otherwise individuals’ privacy would be violated, national security might be undermined, and we have little indication that this would prevent future threats.

A law from 1789 should not be more potent than the values we hold dear, and while opinion polls seem split between the FBI and Apple, the numbers are far less skewed about citizens’ value of privacy. This is not necessarily a discussion restricted to iPhone owners, or people with criminal records, or people with known radical ties. Syed Farook, one of the gunmen responsible for the San Bernandino attacks, was only one of those things. There is no telling if setting a legal precedent for ‘backdoors’ would cause a slippery slope or be an anomaly, but I would rather not chance it.

Cryptographers and technologists have come out on both sides of the argument. Some say whatever the result, the final ruling will not apply to more than one device, or make Apple’s most recently released iPhones vulnerable, or allow for universal ‘backdoors’. Many opine that we cannot have our cake and eat it too; we cannot roll out systems the good guys can crack but the bad guys somehow cannot.

Americans’ activities on phones and online are monitored to a certain degree regardless of this case. In any conversation I have I know my best pal, the NSA, is a silent participant. Our homes and personal devices are hardly impenetrable (even if we have long forsaken the Cloud), but they seem to be the last vestiges of private spaces we have. If we do not want to be criminalised, guilty until proven innocent, and our phones used potentially for preventative as well as investigative measures, the ‘FBiOS’ cannot come into existence.

Speaking publicly on the matter, Bill Gates skirted the issue and left the decision to Congress – fair enough, it is not his job. But again, he mentioned “stopping terrorism” as circumstances where the benefits of a security workaround might outweigh the costs. But we do not know that we could stop such acts with weakened encryption and we begin to veer into dangerous preventative territory as well.

Tied to these debates are questions not only about what is patriotic and ‘American’ (a topic that has plagued me for 22 years) but also about what a company’s relationship should be with its customers. Is Apple’s stance on the San Bernardino phone due to their politics or their marketing strategy? If Apple, Google and Facebook oppose government access to a technological skeleton key, do their customers not benefit regardless of motivation?

Reading Tim Cook’s letter to customers on the Apple website last week, I felt that, whatever the motivation, this is the right direction for Apple to take and for voters to take as well. We value safety, sure, but at the cost of our privacy and our principles? Not really.

Image : Patrick

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