By Jake Mahon
The public battle raging between Apple and U.S. law enforcement over access to an encrypted iPhone reveals fault lines in contemporary society between libertarian fundamentalism and an older, more communitarian vision of the balance between freedom, welfare and virtue.
On one side, the human-rights warriors have lined up in defense of what they see as a sacred right to privacy. Last week, Amnesty International, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the American Civil Liberties Union publicly stated their support of Apple’s refusal to help the FBI unlock the iPhone of Mr. Syed Farook, one of the alleged shooters in the San Bernardino case.
On the other side, legal experts have insisted that it would amount to malpractice for the FBI to not fully explore Apple’s obligation to technically assist the investigation of a major terrorist case, including ordering that Apple create malware to disable the iPhone’s data self-destruct feature so law enforcement can safely guess the phone’s passcode.
As much as this debate is about the trade-off between encryption and public security, I think the notion that freedom and safety are alternatives misses the point. As a recent Harvard report noted, creating technical vulnerabilities for security officials to exploit also creates inroads for a host of bad actors to steal from and spy on political dissidents, private companies, and innocent civilians. Cybersecurity keeps people safe. It is an unqualified good.
But while Apple’s encryption does improve its customers’ cybersecurity, its intransigence in this case does not. It just thwarts a lawful search. Building software that disables a phone’s self-destruct feature so the FBI can force it open does not amount to building “a backdoor to the iPhone,” as Apple claims. It is complying with a court order to allow law enforcement to effectively convert a post-2014 iPhone into a pre-2014 iPhone. In a democracy, that is called a front door. Apple cannot change centuries of jurisprudence with a software update.
The tech giant’s position does, however, advance the individual privacy of its users. If U.S. courts uphold Apple’s non-compliance, it is true that the personal information of iPhone owners would remain more inaccessible to third parties (and totally off-limits to legitimate government searches). We would, in fact, have a type of freedom unprecedented in human history.
The question is, are the costs of that freedom worth it? Would you choose to have an unbreakable phone if the cost imposed is that networks of drug traffickers, child predators, and unstable violent offenders could act with vastly improved security? Or that the families of missing or murdered victims never see justice done because of an unknown passcode? Or, more mundanely, that parents could simply no longer monitor their children’s internet consumption?
Simply put, are human beings a set of individuals with inviolable rights to secrecy, or are we a set of families, mosques, businesses, and political communities with interlacing obligations that sometimes legitimately supersede personal privacy?
The question at stake is over the right balance between freedom, welfare and virtue. Societies other than ours have chosen to reduce their orienting principle to one of these constituent elements. Communities in politically Islamic nations, for instance, tend to rank a Quranic conception of virtue above individual liberty. Communist nations have historically demanded welfare above freedom.
At their worst, these fundamentalisms tragically demonstrate their own ethical and intellectual poverty. At their best, they overcome their own reductionism and balance individual and communal life with beauty and vigor.
If we let a multi-national corporation recalibrate our social compass for us by deciding that certain freedoms are simply absolute—the way gun manufacturers or Big Tobacco have tried before—we reduce ourselves and our principles. The debate Apple has started is important, but its outcome could be toxic.
Jake Mahon is currently an intern at the EastWest Institute.