Apple vs. U.S. Government

by John Kirtley, III | April 21st, 2016

The fphone-privacyight continues between Apple and the F.B.I. regarding access to an iPhone utilized by one of the shooters in the recent San Bernardino terrorist attack that killed 14 Americans. In typical fashion, media reporting and social network commentary resembles more hysteria than facts. Many people quickly formed opinions based upon ideological or political affiliation, despite the complex issues involved.

Law enforcement desires to, and should, investigate the full breadth of the conspiracy by obtaining information stored on the phone. The suspect’s phone’s password protection settings were that after 10 incorrect log-in attempts, the data and contents of the phone would be automatically erased. Consequently, law enforcement seeks assistance from Apple to turn off the feature in question on this one occasion. Privacy advocates equate this to the creation of permanent backdoor, and overstate the matter, to help garner public support—although, the government’s request can implicate privacy concerns related to the data.

The media fails to mention that the phone in question was a work phone issued to the suspect by San Bernardino County. San Bernardino County has consented to a search of the phone. Apple declined law enforcement’s request to assist. A federal judge has ordered Apple to assist. Yet again, Apple declined to help and is currently refusing to comply with a lawful court order. Apple cites privacy concerns as the reason for failing to cooperate.

Even if one takes the position that someone has privacy rights in their work phone, does that right trump national security interests related to identifying a terrorist sleeper cell within our borders? Apple is in the business of selling its brand, and privacy sells big, particularly in markets like China—as Apple recently admitted.
Ironically, Apple (and its current supporters Google and Facebook) have an insatiable appetite for consumer data that they regularly retrieve through email, messaging, web browsers, search, and mapping apps. This data is their life blood. However, when the government wants data from them they balk.

There’s likely not a “one size fits all” response to situations like this, but starting with complete knowledge of the facts, and the motivations of the interested parties, represents a critical first step. Obviously, technological advances presents us with contemporary complex questions to which no easy answers exist. Government power certainly needs to be checked and monitored. However, large corporations need to be good corporate citizens—not just take positions that add to their bottom line or provide effective marketing material.