Apple vs. the FBI: Privacy, Security, Protection, Surveillance

Dawn Chmielewski and Noah Kulwin, in their Re/code article “Apple Files Its Motion to Throw Out Court Order to Hack San Bernardino iPhone,” report on an ongoing case involving Apple, the FBI, the government and issues of privacy and security. In short, the FBI has requested that Apple hack the password on an iPhone used by one of the San Bernadino assailants to assist the government’s investigation into the attack. Apple has refused, arguing that the government is incorrectly applying a 200-year-old law — the All Writs Act — to force Apple to create an operating system update that would give the FBI access to the iPhone.

As Chmielewski and Kulwin explain,

The company argues the case would set a dangerous precedent by forcing Apple to create a backdoor to defeat the security on its phones, potentially undermining the security and privacy of hundreds of millions of users.”

The FBI, on the other hand, has argued that their request is narrow and specific, and would be limited to this single case. American citizens appear to be split. In another Re/code article on the issue, a Pew Research study is presented that shows that 51% of respondents believe Apple should cooperate with the government’s request. Opinions on the debate don’t seem to fall along partisan lines, as is often the case, with Democrats, Republicans, and Independents all splitting fairly evenly, with roughly half of respondents in each group siding with the government.

Shortly after news of the court order broke, several state and local officials publicly asserted their plans to use the software Apple would create to open hundreds of seized devices. While it remains to be seen whether this application of Apple’s workaround would be allowed,  it does appear to confirm the company’s anxieties. Apple is now arguing that their code qualifies as Constitutionally-protected speech and that the FBI’s request amounts to government-compelled speech, a violation of the First Amendment. As an Apple executive said, the company’s code “reflects Apple’s strong views about consumer security and privacy,” and the judge’s order “forces Apple to express the government’s viewpoint on privacy and security instead of its own.”

Earlier public discourse about the Patriot Act serves as a backdrop to the current controversy between the FBI and Apple. These debates highlight the tension in a post-9/11 America between desires for safety and security and a commitment to privacy and civil liberties. What are your thoughts on Apple’s position? How do we understand the fine line between protection and surveillance? Or privacy and security?


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