This morning, all the talk on the news is around Tim Cook’s letter to customers posted on the Apple main page, stating they will not comply with a Federal judge’s order to provide the FBI with a “back-door” into iPhones (specifically, the iPhone 5c used by the San Bernadino shooters). If you haven’t read it, take a few minutes and read what he has to say, it’s really important. Don’t worry, I’ll wait. Seriously, go read it.
Now, I can see both sides of this argument, and I’m feeling genuinely conflicted at the moment. On one hand, bravo Mr. Cook, for standing up for us and our rights to privacy. Having followed the EFF for a while, I understand the importance of security in the digital playground we all inhabit these days. Apple has long stated it’s support of personal privacy, and essentially made the software, starting with iOS 8 I believe, with encryption that they themselves didn’t have the key to. They have agreed that what you have on your phone is your own business, and I think that’s a good stance for a company like Apple to have. How Tim describes how privacy and encryption on our phones can protect our own personal safety makes a lot of sense. They can’t just unlock or decrypt the phone on their own, they purposely put that firewall up between them and the data on the phone to safeguard that personal data. In this case, they would have to write specifically a new version of iOS without that encryption, and somehow force the phone to update to that software so it can be brute-force hacked into by the FBI to attempt to gather the data. Problem is, once that software is written? It exists and someone else will find a way to get it. It will leak, whether by hacker or someone inside who can be bought. Even if it gets out in an incomplete fashion, it gives hackers the tools to do what they’ve been trying to do for years. This is an important precedent to set, and I’m with Tim Cook and Apple on that.
Now the other side, where I’m personally conflicted at the moment. We’re talking about terrorism here. The shooter’s phone could have some incredibly valuable data on it, contacts, access to various account he used, access and information that would be the FBI and Homeland Security’s wet dream. They should have already been able to subpoena phone records, though, as there’s already precedence of getting that information from phone carriers in criminal investigates. They can get a lot more data into the shooter’s activities though, GPS and location data, maybe logins to Twitter or website accounts used to plan the attack, etc. Of course, they could get into the phone and find he wiped it before they did their act of terror. As well as he flew under the radar, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that they wiped the phone prior and there was no data left to retrieve. Where it would be wonderful for the FBI to get that additional information on the shooter, I don’t have confidence that they would really find anything of use. And again, this line still goes along with “if you crack one phone, you now have the blueprints to crack them all”, which is still scary as hell, so I’m not THAT conflicted on this one.
However, we come to the whole disobeying a Federal judge order, which I think is an interesting moral discussion. Where do we draw the line in society that it’s ok to disobey a Federal judge order? When Kim Davis disobeyed the order to issue same sex marriage, I personally felt that was wrong and she needed to do what was being asked of her. Many didn’t, and felt her disobedience was justified. Cliven Bundy disregards Federal Judge orders to pay grazing fees, among other things. Personally, I’m glad he’s locked up at the moment as I feel his brand of “patriotism” was leading to a violent conclusion that had nothing to do with respect for his country. Again, others felt differently and he’s been propped up by some as an example of government overreach. So why does Tim Cook get a pass to disobey a Federal judge’s order?
My answer is this. Kim Davis, while thinking she’s protecting her own rights to religious freedom, was infringing on others by not allowing them the same legal benefits and protections. Allowing them benefits of legal marriage (not the same as Christian marriage) does nothing to hurt or infringe on Kim Davis. Doesn’t impact her at all, but not allowing it impacts the same-sex couples attempting to get those rights. Cliven Bundy, while saying the land belongs to the people and he should be allowed to let his cattle graze for nothing because the land doesn’t belong to the government but the people, is also acting selfishly. If the land belongs to the people, then I own some of that and I don’t want him grazing and destroying the land either. I would want it to be controlled, so the land isn’t desiccated by cattle eating all the vegetation. He may think he’s protecting people from government overreach, but he’s only acting in his own self-interest and making a mockery of “patriotism” in the process.
Tim Cook, however, by refusing the Federal order is taking a bullet for all estimated 800 million users on iOS software (based on device sales over time) across the world. Because creating a back door into one device would put ALL of those users at risk if it were to be released into the wild, either accidentally or with malice. It would set a precedent for other countries with less regulations on privacy (think China and Russia first off) to force Apple into giving them information on people they think are dissidents. His refusal is seen by some as a noble protection of people, not just in America but around the world, and their innate rights to privacy. He’s actively protecting existing rights, and not attempting to restrict rights or say it only applies to him. Maybe that’s why we view his refusal as acceptable while the others not.
Of course, you see the Republican candidates already criticizing him for this move, sensing a way to put themselves in the spotlight on an issue gathering a lot of attention. At the time of writing this, I haven’t seen any comments from Clinton or Sanders, but the Republican candidates were quick to hop on with their soundbites. The criticisms are directly conflicting with their campaigns about personal liberty in a way, but I’m sure they haven’t thought the position all the way through in the rush to get political exposure. They are against a national database for gun ownership, but for the ability of the government to unlock any phone they want to and read all personal data? I am interested to hear what the Democratic candidates have to say, but it will likely be the polar opposite since we’re in campaign grind mode with everyone taking their shots.
Maybe I’m not so conflicted after all…