The mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif. late last year was cause for national mourning and a rekindled fear of homegrown terrorism. Recently, it has also served to actualize the once-abstract debate about cyber security versus privacy that has been burgeoning in the courtroom for over a decade. It has pitted the federal government and law officials against civil libertarians and their sympathizers.
After the shooter’s death, the FBI sought access to his iPhone, and more broadly, all iPhones, through the creation of a “back door.” In this particular case, accessing information on his phone was made difficult without knowing his passcode or having a pre-set way to get an iPhone’s data. A back door would allow the FBI to try millions of potential passcodes within a matter of seconds and without the consequences of the time consuming and destructive security features. With the full support of the White House behind it and the All Writs Act of 1789 as precedent, a federal court ordered Apple to create the software, insisting that the scope of the tool will not reach beyond this case. Though sympathetic to terrorism concerns, Apple has not been so agreeable to the court order.
Supporters of back doors cite the immediate need for greater national security amidst the growing threat of ISIS and other militant groups. Few people doubt that we need strong and effective measures to protect people from terrorist attacks. However, every decision like this has its insidious ramifications. In this case, the ramifications infringe upon our civil liberties as part of a long history most recently defined by the Patriot Act.
A few government officials have claimed that Apple’s noncompliance is simply a marketing stratagem rather than the righteous guarding of civil liberties. While Apple has its part in connecting our personal lives and information tightly and inexorably, these claims cannot be validated nor would it matter if they could be. Apple’s decision, if it was a marketing scheme, represents the concerns regarding privacy kept by millions of Apple customers. Tim Cook, Apple CEO, addresses these concerns in his letter to the public.
As Cook explains, the creation of a back door inherently makes iPhone users more vulnerable. Once the software exists, this method for breaking into iPhones may fall into any number of hands, from local hackers and criminals to foreign governments such as China or Russia. In an ironic twist, the court order meant to protect us on a national level could weaken our individual and personal security.
Our government can exploit this vulnerability as well. After the Snowden Affair in 2013, the public has been critical of mass government surveillance, and for good reason. Many of us live our lives electronically, entrusting our smartphones with a huge amount of personal information — conversations, pictures, even banking and credit card information. In some cases, our iPhones have essentially become an extension of ourselves. With access to our smartphones and improved methods of mass surveillance, the government can effectively fleece our civil liberty of privacy.
Government officials have claimed that this tool will only be used in this particular case, but Cook reminds us that there is no way to control its use. This promise of a one-time-deal is an empty one. Though in this case the phone belongs to a dead man, but should the court succeed, it would set precedence for the FBI to request the hacking of iPhones in more cases, perhaps with living defendants. There is no telling how and in what ways this ruling will be used in the future. An unethical and unjustified ruling now could mean more down the line.
Whatever the outcome, this case will in part determine the future of privacy and security as it relates to technology. It is our job to consider the implications and decide which moral ground we stand on. However, it will not be an easy decision. President Obama was right when he said in an interview with Re/Code, “We can’t pretend there are no tradeoffs.” The search for security may mean less privacy while more privacy may mean increased national vulnerability. Debates about civil liberties and government reach necessitate the weighing of our priorities. At this momentous fork in the road, it is still unclear how we can address both concerns for civil liberty and the need for national security without sacrificing the former for the latter or vice versa. Nevertheless, it is more important to first define the extent to which the state can infringe individual privacy, before we dive in headfirst–and the hour may even be too late for that.