Apple vs the FBI: The Privacy and Security Debate

The debate about balancing privacy with security is a fundamental debate to all democracies. In recent years, with the growing prevalence of technology such as smartphones and computers to the lives of citizens, this debate has taken on new parameters and significance. In recent days and weeks, this debate has again ignited with the current standoff between Apple CEO Tim Cook and the FBI. The standoff arises from a dispute between the two over access to the phone of the San Bernardino terrorist Syed Farook, who killed fourteen people in December.

The debate is a complex one, with this particular case potentially setting a precedent for similar cases in the future. These ramifications stretch beyond the United States, with reports that the Chinese government, were the FBI to prevail with their demands, would ask for similar access from multinational companies to their products. Some Australian technology journalists, such as Ben Grubb, believe that the ongoing case in America will also have implications for Australians’ privacy in the not-to-distant future.

On the one hand, civil libertarians, along with Apple, argue that the FBI has no right to demand access to phones. According to people on this side of the argument, the demands which the FBI is making of Apple is a violation of the American constitution. Civil libertarians cite the fourth amendment, which is designed to prevent unwarranted seizures and searches of personal property by government, as a defense against the demands of the FBI. Tim Cook, in a memo sent around to Apple employees on Monday, argued that the current case between the company and the FBI would set a precedent against hundreds of millions of people, putting their privacy in jeopardy. In the memo, Cook also argues that in order fulfil the FBI’s demands, his company would have to reconfigure the encryption on all iPhones, claiming that current iPhones could not be accessed by the FBI even if they wanted to.

On the other hand, there are obvious concerns pertaining to national security. Access to the phone of a known terrorist, from the perspective of the FBI, would allow access to potentially crucial evidence of acts of terrorism. In a press release on the FBI’s website, director James Comey argued that Apple should allow, with a warrant, a means for the FBI to access phones in special circumstances such as that of the San Bernardino terrorist, citing that it was in the public interest for Apple to do so. According to a Pew Research poll released on Monday, a majority of Americans side with the FBI on this issue. The poll results show 51% agreeing with the FBI that Apple should allow access to the San Bernardino terrorists’ phone, compared to 38% who disagreed with the FBI.

One of the more interesting points about this case is the manner in which Apple has chosen to resist the FBI’s demands. In terms of major multinational companies, Apple is an outlier in taking this course of action. Other major companies, such as Facebook, are more accommodating of the FBI’s demands. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, while expressing sympathy for Apple and Tim Cook, stated that “If we have opportunities to basically work with the government to make sure there are not terrorist attacks, obviously we are going to take those opportunities.” Meanwhile, Microsoft founder Bill Gates also took the side of the FBI. In his opinion, Apple should work alongside the FBI to assist in the case of the San Bernardino terrorist. It is also worth noting that Apple has unlocked iPhones for the FBI in previous instances. According to a report from the Daily Beast, Apple has unlocked iPhones in at least 70 cases in the past. In a similar case involving a terrorists’ phone in New York, Apple acknowledged in a statement that it had the capacity to unlock the phone, contrary to previous claims it had made, including those in the memo sent around the company on Monday. The company argued, however, that unlocking the phone would cause reputational and economic harm to the company, despite Apple having unlocked many phones previously.

The nature of the technology involved, as well as the competing interests of a federal agency, a private company and private citizens highlight the complexity of this debate. Arguments in favour of both privacy and security have merits, yet these interests must be balanced out, dependent on context and situation. A backdoor for a federal security agency such as the FBI to be able to unlock any phone and compromise the privacy of any citizen is of course undesirable. However, a situation where a security agency cannot access necessary evidence against a slain terrorist that is overwhelmingly in the public interest, especially in a case such as that of the San Bernardino terrorist, is not desirable either.

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