Whether you believe it or not, we are living in a really unique time period in the history of the world. For thousands of years, nation-states and organizations with military might have governed the course of human affairs without question. The last major human-made institution that seriously the challenged a powerful nation-state was the Catholic church, but that was over 1500 years ago. Today, we’re seeing multi-national companies like Google, Microsoft and Apple do just that in our modern world.
This is really significant.
Apple, the popular maker of iPhones and iPads, is publicly challenging the FBI of the United States with its recent appeal to customers for support. In the aftermath of the San Bernardino shootings, Apple refused to create a version of its operating system (iOS) that would allow regulators to unlock and decrypt any device it makes. Mainly, Apple CEO Tim Cook cited the fact that doing so would create a dangerous precedent. Google CEO Sundar Pichai seemed to agree with the notion.
As good Americans, we all want to help fight terrorism and protect lives. I believe the FBI is trying to do just that, but the potential cost of that may be too great in this case.
Ultimately, Apple’s decision to fight the request is important because it rightfully challenges an overstep of potential federal power that could be abused by future regulators.
Multiple issues at hand
On one hand, the nation is facing a serious case of domestic terrorism in which fourteen individuals lost their lives (one of many mass shootings in 2015). This is surely a tragedy and like everyone else, I strongly believe that justice should be served for the victims’ families. Everyone can agree that the authorities (including the FBI) should do everything within their power to find as much information about the criminals to prevent such an incident in the future.
The second issue we have to address however is the long-term cost of authorizing the FBI to coerce companies into making their devices less secure. In these kinds of situations, it’s important to be sensitive towards the loss of human life while being pragmatic about which liberties we want to potentially trade-off. In essence, the need for law enforcement to investigate the shooters should be looked at differently from the issue of demanding backdoor mobile device access from technology companies.
Why the FBI request presents a dangerous problem
Why does this issue matter so much? Over and over, the FBI has maintained that they just want one crack to unlock one iPhone. In the words of FBI Director James Comey, “We don't want to break anyone's encryption or set a master key loose on the land.” I am deeply inclined to believe this. I strongly believe that the FBI is trying to do their job and has the purest intentions, but this issue goes further than one iPhone. As citizens, we have to seriously consider the implications of allowing nation-states to impose privacy overrides on our devices on such a massive scale.
“We don't want to break anyone's encryption or set a master key loose on the land.” - FBI Director James Comey
Firstly, what happens if there is another tragic incident where the U.S. government wants access to “just one phone” for “just one time?” Most judicial decisions are governed by previous decisions. With precedent of a company’s compliance to such a request, a judge may be likely to grant a similar order in the future. It will be extremely difficult to overturn such a decision later. Moreover, the decision could be interpreted for other use cases where it may not apply as clearly.
Most importantly, while the FBI’s intentions and potential follow through may be pure, citizens have to ask a more long-term question: will a government fifty (50) years in the future respect this fine line when it comes to privacy?
I don’t know the answer to that question and I don’t want my children to find out. The founding fathers of the U.S. wrote the Constitution to minimize the potential evil of men by avoiding centralization of power. By granting future governments the power to coerce companies into invading privacy like in the case of Apple, we can’t be certain that future “one phone, one time” scenarios will be respected. If the FBI succeeds, the order will directly undermine the moral framework of the Constitution itself.
“It’s just a marketing strategy” - Why it doesn’t matter
A February 19, 2016 legal filing by the FBI in response to Apple posited that the company’s position for enforcing customer privacy was mainly a marketing strategy. I believe there are merits to this position. Apple does indeed benefit from brand consistency and an increased level of customer trust with their denial of the original order. It can surely be labeled as a matter of self-interest.
However, it doesn’t matter if Apple’s actions are self-serving -- their commitment to preserving the security of their devices serves the interest of all people, now and in the future. It’s a truly beautiful thing when capitalist interests align with the people, and this example is one of them. It’s amazing how quickly we forgot that just over 100 years ago, the business magnate J.P. Morgan bailed out the U.S. government before it collapsed in the Panic of 1907.
Was J.P. Morgan’s financial assistance self-serving? Yes, you bet it was. Because he made his profits from Wall Street, he relied heavily on the stability of the U.S. government and its financial institutions. However, his actions also aligned with the American people and its government. The bottom line is that as a company, you can kill two birds with one stone by doing good for the people while ensuring your own profits.
The Apple marketing strategy argument may be true in spirit, but it still aligns with what’s best for the people.
As the situation continues to unfold in a public back and forth fashion, leaders like Bill Gates are speaking up to clarify that there needs to be more discussion on the matter. I think Apple wants to be a security partner with the FBI to come up with a win-win solution, but that doesn’t seem to be the FBI’s intent (thus far). I hope for all future generations (and mine) that the FBI’s request doesn’t see the light of day.