Editorial: The Healthy Tension between Apple and the Government

Courts will have to decide whether to rule in favor of privacy or access to data for public safety purposes
Editorial: The Healthy Tension between Apple and the Government

The dispute between the federal government and the company Apple is a battle between an entity that enjoys little credibility to use its discretionary powers and a corporation protecting its brand in order to keep a profitable business model. The public stands in the middle of the dispute between keeping information contained in iPhones private, and the growing demand of the authorities for more access to information to safeguard public safety in times of terrorist threats and attacks.

The current discussion is over an iPhone 5C belonging to Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the perpetrators of the San Bernardino massacre. The FBI wants to know the contents of the messages exchanged in the weeks leading up to the attack to see if any collaborators may be involved and to gauge Farook’s motive at that precise moment. The agency turned to the court, and a judge ordered Apple to create a program to unlock that phone exclusively. Apple President Tim Cook has refused to comply, citing that doing so would harm the privacy of the company’s customers by potentially exposing to hackers and government surveillance.

For a long time, the government has been frustrated by the way encryption technology makes its investigations more difficult. However, there is generalized distrust over giving the government access after the leak carried out by National Security Agency employee Edward Snowden, which gave part of the private sector a bad name for collaborating with the authorities without telling their customers. Apple itself has previously worked with the FBI unlocking smartphones in less-publicized cases.

Apple’s problem with the judge’s order is that creating a “back door” to the iPhone would undermine its reputation and a growth model that includes applications such as Apple Pay, a payment system which stores banking information on the phone. As it’s making a show of protecting the public’s privacy, a tax-evading corporation such as Apple already has a track record that demonstrates that its priority is to sell its product, not the well-being of the American people.

For their part, the government saw in the San Bernardino case an ideal opportunity to finally solve its data access problem. A dispute between the world’s most powerful government and the world’s largest company will be solved either in court or in Congress. In any case, this is a healthy discussion, as blind obedience to a government’s orders sets a bad precedent.