When privacy is too precious

The result of the Apple versus FBI dispute throws up an inconvenient truth.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

The result of the Apple versus FBI dispute throws up an inconvenient truth.

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Which is more sacred: privacy or national security? A defi ning legal clash in the United States between the two ideologies has ended in a victory for the man on the street. Privacy won out, the public stuck it to the authorities. Cue feel-good music.

But I didn’t feel good about it at all.

I believe that for any society to thrive, there must exist a social contract – the idea that some degree of liberty must be sacrificed for humans to co-exist. Star Trek’s Spock drove the point home: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

Sure, reading Orwell and Huxley made me wary of corruptive absolute power, but I’d like to think the world operates on some middle ground. The high-profile fight in California’s courts early this year was a huge chance for the world to weigh in on this debate.

In one corner was Apple, arguably the most infl uential player in the smartphone world. In the other, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The dispute centred on a passcode-protected iPhone that belonged to one half of the terrorist pair behind the San Bernardino attacks in the US. The phone might have contained information to combat a terror network or even prevent subsequent attacks, but the FBI risked losing all its contents if its agents tried to unlock it unaided.

Apple was then called upon to create software that would neutralise the phone’s stringent security measures. The Californian firm was alarmed by the implications, which would set a precedent where tech companies not only had to yield personal data, but facilitate its systematic collection. It also feared the tool would be used indiscriminately.

Thus Apple refused, citing mainly the danger of a slippery slope (first it would be compelled to unlock, but eventually spy, for example). Soon, it turned into the shining white knight of user privacy, and tech titans including Google, Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft were quick to throw their considerable weight behind Apple.

It was a grand exercise in image enhancement, as the world’s favourite, trusted brands and service providers swore they’d sooner go down in the courts than betray their customers. Meanwhile, the FBI and US government came under withering criticism, amplified by the very social media platforms that the angry users helped to build.

One day before the hearing was due, the FBI pulled the request, stating that they had paid a third-party vendor an astronomical fee to crack the code (estimated $1.5m or more). In other words, the FBI had backed down, instead of pressing the issue.

When the cheers and back-clapping started, I heard, too, the cheers from malicious characters the world over. They have in their hands military-grade communications equipment that governments struggle to crack. Who knows what their agenda is?

The implications of that seem lost on the average human. World wars have been lost and won by encryption, decryption and asymmetrical information. Cybercrime and terrorism are becoming more widespread and destructive, while smartphones become our portal to our digital selves.

Let’s also not forget the irony that we’re already trading privacy for “better user experiences”. Think of how many people log in to new services via Facebook to save 30 seconds or a few dollars.

Let’s face it, digital sanctums will become the medium for transmitting questionable, dangerous data and, as long as they are out of reach of law enforcement, we are in effect allowing citizens’ entitlement to privacy to jeopardise lives. We will have to accept the repercussions then – in the words of Spock: It’s only logical.

“if we’re putting military-grade equipment in the hands of toddlers and terrorists, we’ll have to live with the outcome.”

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