In investigating a terrorist attack on U.S. soil that took 14 lives, should the FBI be able to unlock a dead terrorist’s iPhone? The United States government thinks it should. Apple Inc. thinks otherwise.
In an open letter to customers, Apple CEO Tim Cook explains, “We feel we must speak up in the face of what we see as an overreach by the U.S. government. Ultimately, we fear that this demand would undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect.”
The government feels that Apple is using this incident to boost profits—advertising to customers and prospects that it will protect their privacy no matter what. The Justice Department explains that Apple’s opposition appears “to be based on its concern for its business model and public brand marketing strategy.”
Apple is tapping into widespread public concerns about the government prying into private matters. But the public seems to be supporting the government on this issue, believing that stopping future terrorist attacks trumps a dead terrorist’s right to privacy.
According to a February poll by Pew Research Center, 51% of Americans believe that Apple should assist the FBI in unlocking the phone while 38% disagree and 11% don’t know which side to take.
The iPhone 5c in question was used by Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the terrorists involved in an attack in San Bernardino, California, on December 2, 2015, that caused the death of 14 innocent people and the injury of 22 others.
With some exceptions, tech industry leaders have lined up behind Apple.
Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, tweeted, “We stand with @tim_cook and Apple (and thank him for his leadership)!” Jan Koum, co-founder of the messaging service WhatsApp, said on Facebook that he “couldn’t agree more with everything said in [Apple’s] Customer Letter today. We must not allow this dangerous precedent to be set. Today our freedom and our liberty is at stake.”
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he feels Facebook has a responsibility to help prevent terrorist attacks but that “we’re sympathetic with Apple on this one.” Google CEO Sundar Pichai said that “forcing companies to enable hacking could compromise users’ privacy.”
Microsoft founder and former CEO Bill Gates, on the other hand, sided with the FBI, contending that the government’s request is no different from getting access to telephone or bank records, as long as the right safeguards are in place. To access private telephone and bank records, the government needs a court order. This check-and-balance is designed to protect privacy.
Apple is also tapping into distrust of the government fueled by the actions of former CIA employee Edward Snowden, who copied and released classified information from the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) in 2013 revealing abuses in U.S government global surveillance programs.
It’s the job of government security agencies to help protect the country from terrorist attacks. The failure of the FBI and the CIA to coordinate the information they previously gathered was a key factor allowing the September 11 terrorist attacks to happen in 2001.
Regardless of how Apple’s remarkably arrogant defiance plays out, there’s bound to be more incidents like this in the future. Other recent news is illustrative.
The encrypted messaging app Telegram in February announced that its user base had exceeded 100 million people worldwide. Telegram, founded in Russia in 2013, has been called “the world’s most controversial messaging platform” because it allows anyone to text using a smartphone without fear of being monitored by government authorities.
Islamic terrorists used the app last fall to coordinate the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 129 people. The Islamic State group previously used it to broadcast propaganda.
Also in February Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center in Los Angeles was hacked, preventing it from carrying out the business of treating patients with the help of its computer equipment. It assented to hacker’s demands by paying them $17,000 through the encrypted, difficult-to-trace payment network Bitcoin.
Clearly, we benefit from both privacy and security. But you need to sacrifice at least some privacy when living with others in an interconnected world. Security requires trying to figure out what the bad guys are doing before they do it and learning about what they did so they can’t do it again.
Striking the right balance between the sometimes competing ideals of privacy and security will be a challenge for governments and the tech industry in the months and years ahead.