It’s Apple Inc. versus the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The fight is in the federal courts, the Congress of the United States and the great court of public opinion. The contest rises on the heels of the disclosures about the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance of ordinary citizens and with ever growing fears by some that the government is following a script written by George Orwell.
The FBI wants Apple to create a digital key to bypass the security in an iPhone assigned by the county of San Bernardino to its employee Syed Rizwan Farook, an Islamic extremist who killed 14 innocent Americans on December 2, 2015 and wounded 22 more. The FBI reasonably believes that there may be information on the iPhone related to other terrorists who could pose a threat to citizens of the United States. It is the FBI’s mission to protect those innocent citizens. On the other hand, Apple asserts that once the security of the iPhone is breached no one’s iPhone information will ever again be secure. Security versus privacy must remind us of Benjamin Franklin’s famous admonition that “those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
Powerful allies are lining up on each side of the big fight. Microsoft’s Bill Gates believes that Apple should cooperate completely with the FBI while, Microsoft, the company he founded, is on Apple’s side. AT&T also supports Apple, as does Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.
Perhaps, surprisingly, retired four-star general Michael Hayden, who, as director of the National Security Agency, installed and still defends the controversial surveillance program to collect telephone metadata on millions of Americans, opposes the FBI’s effort to force Apple to install a digital back door into the iPhone.
Blinded, as we are by the larger dispute, let’s not rush past two important points. First, isn’t it amazing that Apple’s security is so effective that the FBI with all of its assets and knowhow cannot break into Farook’s iPhone? It is true that in recent days the FBI has disclosed that someone from outside of this famed law enforcement agency may be able to get past the iPhone's security but the FBI has not been able to do so itself. Second, the County of San Bernardino California owns the iPhone. The phone did not belong to Farook. Farook was a county employee and he was provided with the iPhone by the government to perform his duties as a county employee. The county bought the phone and the county paid the monthly bill. Even so, the County of San Bernardino did not make provision to control the security locks on its iPhone.
Whatever we think about the battle between Apple and the FBI, between security and privacy, let us all take heart about one thing. These issues, in the Congress, in California’s San Bernardino County and in the federal courts play out in public, before our eyes. We do not, not yet at least, live in a country where these important issues are decided in secrete. We will know the result of the contest. We can hope to know if the FBI succeeds in gaining access to our phones and to our computers and to all of the information that describes and defines our lives. We may or may not like the result but we will know. We will know if Apple succeeds in depriving the FBI of the opportunity to determine if there is information vital to national security on the iPhone loaned to Farook by San Bernardino County.
Is Big Brother watching? You betcha! He likes to look at everything, everywhere, always. It is yet to be seen if we can keep him narrowly focused. Stay tuned.
Content prepared by Edmond McGill. © Edmond McGill, 2016
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