If you’ve followed the news at all in recent months, you’re no doubt aware of the hateful attack unleashed in San Bernardino by the married couple who evidently kept key information squirreled away in encrypted iPhones. Having failed to break the encryption themselves, the FBI sought legal remedy in their quest to unearth the perpetrators’ secrets, to the point that a federal judge issued a demand that Apple unlock the encryption on the phones in question. Naturally, citing privacy concerns, Apple CEO Tim Cook issued a formal refusal to comply. It should be very interesting to see how this legal battle plays out, and it will certainly be a hotly-debated issue for years to come whichever side wins this round.
The most obvious issue is a long-standing balancing act between the right to privacy and the right to a measure of public security enforced by the state. This point of contention long predates the advent of encrypted smartphones, laptops, the entire computer industry and even the mechanical typewriter. Most likely you’ve heard the famous 16th-century quote by Benjamin Franklin, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” I’m not weighing in on either side of this issue, but the quote I mentioned serves to provide a historical context to this modern incarnation of the age-old battle between security and privacy.
Having provided the necessary background, I’ve arrived at my first point, conspicuously absent from the bulk of the media frenzy surrounding this clash between Apple and the government: terrorism and hate-motivated violence has been around even longer than human governments themselves. The encrypted iPhone is just the latest tool of choice (as any late-model Android device with data encryption enabled by default could easily be). There will always be ways for terrorists to communicate with one another while evading the notice of an ever-more-watchful government. While a government victory over Apple would certainly enrage privacy advocates, it would certainly not guarantee public safety from future threats.
If Apple wins, it would surely seem like a victory for privacy advocates and for those who keep vital and sensitive personal information stored on encrypted devices. Nevertheless, user complacency, private and government-sponsored hackers and malware developers will continue to pose a threat. Even those who never make any of the common mistakes that lead to loss of sensitive data could be lulled into a false sense of security by such a legal victory, believing Apple’s (or Android’s) data encryption is invulnerable to breaching. This encryption was able to hold up against the FBI’s best efforts so far, but law enforcement, hackers and malware developers will eventually find a way to break or circumvent it. The encryption was developed by humans and it can be broken by humans. The wise course would still be to simply avoid putting data you can’t afford to lose or have leaked to the public on such devices to begin with.
No amount of technological advancement, government surveillance or preservation of legal rights can guarantee either of the principles of Benjamin Franklin’s famous quote. Despite their best efforts and most noble intentions, no human beings on either side can guarantee lasting security or true liberty. Perhaps the most important point of all, the point you almost certainly won’t hear from most of the media coverage of Apple v. the government, is this: don’t give into hate, and don’t be misled to believing that something good can be accomplished by doing something bad. Violence begets violence – it doesn’t beget justice.