Apple’s conflict with the FBI highlights our powerlessness


The Appalachian Online

Kevin Griffin

When news broke that Apple would fight FBI efforts to force the company to design software to help the FBI crack the San Bernardino attacker’s phone, I initially thought this was a bold, positive stand for the privacy rights of tech users.

Unfortunately, a deeper look at the stakes in this particular case reveal a potentially much darker picture.  As much as Apple may want to protect privacy rights, the possibility of a privacy rights victory is not assured.

One of the most disconcerting realities of life in the post-Edward Snowden era is the feeling of powerlessness many of us have over our digital privacy rights.

If it weren’t for the Snowden revelations, many of us would not have that much knowledge about the extent of data collection. Even now that we know, there does not seem to be much we can do.

So much of our lives are bound up in these devices, yet they also serve as a means for often unchecked surveillance.

This conflict between Apple and the FBI is a perverse example of how that loss of power is playing out. With little support for changing the surveillance regimen in the political establishment, we are now looking to a private corporation to protect those rights that should be protected by government.

Of course, this case is different from NSA surveillance in a number of ways. This process is playing out in the open and the government has obtained valid warrants for the case.

In addition, there is some dispute over what the real issue in this case is.

Simply put, the FBI is asking Apple to create a code that will disable certain safety features on the iPhone in question so that the authorities can have a better chance of guessing the password.

In a highly publicized letter to customers, Apple CEO Tim Cook contends that it is not possible for the company to do this in a way that wouldn’t put all iPhone users at potential future privacy and security risk.

However, other experts have said that it would be possible for Apple to comply with the request without creating a large backdoor. Dan Guido, a cyber security analyst and blogger, has suggested that there are ways for Apple to do what the FBI wants without creating a larger privacy and security problem.

The facts of the current situation have lead a number of media outlets to see this as a bad move by Apple. In the end, we might get an outcome in which the government will have greater ability to compel tech companies to participate in searches like this.

The thought is that by using this case, which has as a backdrop as one of the most frightening terrorism attacks in recent memory, the government will be able to marshal both public opinion and the law  to expand its legal ability to act.

And the public does not seem to be on Apple’s side. A Pew Research poll shows 51 percent of Americans supporting the government, while only 38 percent support Apple.

Basically, the point is that this isn’t so much about this particular case as it is about establishing a precedent for increased government encroachment into technology.

This brings us back to the issue of power. Despite the differences between this case and NSA survelliance, in both cases we see the issue of technological survelliance playing out outside the realm of public ability to have input.

Indeed, the only power we seem to have in this case is as consumers.

One of the reasons Apple is so central in this case is because it is a prominent consumer company. People identify with Apple, and see it as representing something more than just a large international corporation.

The company’s public perception is likely one of the reasons it is adopting this stance. By positiniong itself as a defender of privacy, the company enhances its brand, a necessity since its economic success is so closely linked to its image.

All of this is incredibly perverse. When it comes to the limits of government surveillance, Americans should be able to exercise their power as voting citizens, rather than having to count on their indirect power as consumers to present a bulwark against potential invasions of privacy.

This is far from over, and it isn’t clear what the result will be. At the least, I hope the high profile nature of this incident awakens Americans to the continued relevance of these security and privacy concerns.

Even though Americans seem to support the government at this point, it is important that these issues become more visible and that we have a more open, less fearful debate about the boundaries between privacy and security.

If nothing else comes of this case, I hope we can start to have this discussion this more openly, and exercise our power by making this an issue that our elected leaders must answer for publicly.

Griffin, a senior journalism major from Madison, is the Opinion Editor.