Why You Should Side With the FBI, Not Apple, in the San Bernardino iPhone Case

iPhone security

The ongoing face-off between the FBI and Apple, stemming from a Federal court order issued Feb. 16 that would force the company to unlock the iPhone used by one of the suspects in the San Bernardino terrorist attacks, has little to do with government surveillance powers and even less to do with imperiling the security of dissidents around the world.

That’s just what the post-Snowden cottage industry of privacy-at-all-costs advocates, and Apple, want you to believe.

“The government is asking Apple to hack our own users and undermine decades of security advancements that protect our customers,” wrote Apple CEO Tim Cook, in a Feb. 16 letter to Apple customers posted on the company’s website. “The government could extend this breach of privacy and demand that Apple build surveillance software to intercept your messages, access your health records or financial data, track your location, or even access your phone’s microphone or camera without your knowledge.”

Cook clearly bases his argument on the overused David versus Goliath model, pitting the great American technology company against the great Satan of the American surveillance state. But that approach glosses over important questions that are really at the heart of this debate: Do we want to live in a country where consumer technologies can be used to carry out horrific acts of violence and then rob victims of justice by encrypting the evidence for eternity? And should private companies like Apple and Google get to dictate the balance between our privacy and our safety, and what is in the public interest?

To those who take a purely academic approach to these questions, the answers are “complicated,” buried deep within a tangled web of “policy implications.” But to a growing number of average Americans—all of whom have had no other choice but to stand by and watch as Silicon Valley absconded with their personal information and proceeded to sell it to the highest bidder—these questions have rational answers.

This case is not about the FBI testing the limits of its surveillance powers and trying to establish precedent for strong-arming companies into creating so-called backdoors to encryption and other security protections. It’s about our ability as a society to provide for the common defense against real enemies of safety and security—not the perceived enemies that some would have you believe are sitting in the basement at NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Md., right now trying to read your emails and text messages.

Americans look at this debate and see an increasing number of non-terrorism related violent crimes going unsolved or languishing in the criminal justice system because our law enforcement agencies aren’t able to get access to commercial devices that likely hold critical evidence of wrongdoing.

“A part that gets confusing to me is when people talk like we want access to company’s servers, we want access to their source code,” said FBI director James Comey, during testimony Feb. 9 before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. “What we would like is a world where people are able to comply with court orders. It’s not about us trying to get a backdoor….I don’t want a door, I don’t want a window, I don’t want a sliding glass door. I would like people to comply with court orders.”

What’s worse, the argument put forth by Apple and the privacy-at-all-costs community is that changing the legal framework to help protect citizens in the U.S. from acts of terrorism and other violent crimes that are being supported by these commercial devices would somehow put the future of mankind at risk by giving rise to authoritarian governments in every clime and place, from Silicon Valley to Samoa.

PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 18: Protesters march against China's censorship of the internet at the Doo Dah Parade on January 18, 2009 in Pasadena. (Photo: Shutterstock)
Protesters march against China’s censorship of the Internet at the Doo Dah Parade on Jan. 18, 2009, in Pasadena, Calif. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Such an absurd prediction ignores the reality that our digital privacy is already gone. Authoritarian regimes—even that futuristic American boogeyman that hides under our beds—already have easy access to the technological tools of political control. A world in which we give our most personal information to Facebook, Google, and Apple so they can profit from it, but are too paranoid to even consider finding a way to help the government protect us from real dangers is a world turned upside down.

There’s also plenty of hypocrisy to point out. How quickly people forget what Silicon Valley has been willing to do to gain access to markets in repressive societies. In 2006, for example, I called for a boycott of Google after the search engine giant cooperated with the Chinese government to develop a censored version of Google for use in China. The Chinese version of Google not only filters out controversial topics, like democracy, but it deliberately returned results full of official Chinese government propaganda. And Google is not alone in accepting the so-called “cost of doing business” in China.

The bottom line is that questions of security and privacy should not be left to the likes of Apple and Google to determine. Likewise, they should not be left with the courts. These are matters that Americans must decide for themselves through laws and regulations passed by our elected representatives in Congress. And if 86 percent of 18- to 25-year-old technology students believe curing cancer or Alzheimer’s disease is more important than personal privacy (as MeriTalk discovered in a recent national survey), Silicon Valley and the privacy-at-all-costs industry is just going to have to suck it up.

Dan Verton
About Dan Verton
MeriTalk Executive Editor Dan Verton is a veteran journalist and winner of the First Place Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for Best News Reporting -- the highest award in the nation for business/trade journalism. Dan earned a Master's Degree in Journalism and Public Affairs from American University in Washington, D.C., and has spent the last 20 years in the nation's capital reporting on government, enterprise technology, policy and national cybersecurity. He’s also a former intelligence officer in the United States Marine Corps, has authored three books on cybersecurity, and has testified on critical infrastructure protection before both House and Senate committees.
8 Comments
  1. Anonymous | - Reply
    Good piece on a very complicated issue. I'm all for any steps that will keep me and all Americans safe - even if it means there are some folks "sitting in the basement at NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Md., right now trying to read your emails and text messages."
  2. Anonymous | - Reply
    THis is clearly a difficult question but I agree with you Dan. The real question here is are Americans in control of America? Are we committed to a Republican democracy :-0
  3. Anonymous | - Reply
    This is an excellent write up of the issue - very well done.
  4. Anonymous | - Reply
    "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." --Benjamin Franklin "Big Brother in the form of an increasingly powerful government and in an increasingly powerful private sector will pile the records high with reasons why privacy should give way to national security, to law and order, to efficiency of operation, to scientific advancement and the like." --William O. Douglas 1898-1980), U. S. Supreme Court Justice The presentation of your views is simplistic, skewed, severely flawed, and demeaning. There will always be people who want to harm and take advantage of others no matter the technology. Your proposed approach is addressing a symptom not the root cause, and you demean the intelligence and integrity of those that may have an opposing view. Any access, backdoor, or work around that compromises privacy in technology will be abused by criminals, companies, "unfriendly" regimes, and our own federal, state, and local governments - just look at the abuse of “Stingrays” (cell tower simulators) at all levels of government in the U.S. for an example. Be careful not to pursue “quick or easy” at the expense civil liberties and privacy. Because of the reporting done to uncover the truth about Stingray use, we know that we cannot completely trust our government to operate by the letter or spirit of the law. Our laws should be changed to protect our privacy by default (yes the internet economy is abusive), and to give it away as individuals to companies if we choose to. The Government is an entirely different entity, and it has abused the trust the citizens (and judges) give it. Our government is based on checks-and-balances, but we are way out of balance with shifting technology. Your assumption that the courts and judges, including the FISA Court, are able to fully understand the scope, technical capability, and implications relating to the requests they receive - which may or may not contain full disclosure information- is not valid. Again, look at the evidence that law enforcement deceived and mislead judges about their use of Stingrays and how they work. People who don’t understand the implications of a technology are easily mislead by those requesting approval to use it. The government is bringing this case against Apple BECAUSE it wants a precedent to be set. With the entire process with respect to Stingrays, and other operations, covered in secrecy, checks-and-balance is undermined - it is not possible to prevent situations of abuse.
    1. Anonymous | - Reply
      This is an issue of a known terrorists who committed violent acts. And apple has the capability to provide the data on the phone. Not the method of how to get to the data. Wonder what will happen if another "potentially avoidable" act is committed and after the data is eventually accessed (and it will, it is just a matter of how long it will take) it could have been avoided. What will Apple have to say then.
  5. Anonymous | - Reply
    If the government wants a way to access, or a back door into, all of my communications, then I should have a legal back door and insight into theirs.
  6. Anonymous | - Reply
    Could not disagree more. I am not "for" or "against" either our government or Silicon Valley. The government's case has less merit in this instance. The court order was unnecessary as the government knows there are other ways to get key data besides cracking the phone. And frankly, why does the vendor have to do this? Is it easier to strong-arm the manufacturer than to get a court to agree that, in the interest of national security, the government itself must hack the device to get the data? Way too many holes in the government's argument and they have been less then forthcoming on the entire issue, instead choosing to frame the argument such that the public must choose between them and Apple.
  7. Google | - Reply
    Google Very couple of web sites that transpire to be in depth below, from our point of view are undoubtedly very well really worth checking out.

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