America needs to have a serious conversation about privacy, personal data, national security and technology. Framing that conversation around a terrorist’s iPhone is just about the worst possible way to do it.
The phone in question belonged to San Bernardino, Calif., shooter Syed Farook. He had installed a pass code on his smartphone, and without that code, law enforcement cannot access the dead man’s data. If officials try to guess and are wrong too many times, the smartphone would destroy its contents.
For most people, pass codes are a sensible precaution, a strong layer of protection in case the smartphone is stolen.
Farook, of course, wasn’t most people. The names of other conspirators or terrorists might be on his smartphone. Knowing who worked with him could help law enforcement prevent future attacks.
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Then again, maybe it’s all selfies and cat pictures. It’s impossible to know without the pass code.
The FBI asked for Apple’s help, breaking down the security wall so it could be sure it had every shred of evidence. When the company demurred, the Department of Justice convinced a judge to order Apple to comply.
Civil libertarians are rallying behind the company, saying that Americans should be able to keep their data private if they want. If Apple develops a tool for breaking through security measures, it won’t be long before law enforcement uses it in other cases. It also could wind up in the hands of hackers or foreign governments.
Security hawks, meanwhile, are outraged that Apple is defying a lawful court order and helping a killer keep his secrets. Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump called for an Apple boycott — from his iPhone.
As both sides barrel ahead, emboldened by the conviction that their causes are just, a nuanced debate cannot occur. This is a case of extremes. If you support Apple, you are helping terrorists. If you support the FBI, you are helping the government invade anyone’s privacy.
And it’s even more complicated than that. The FBI isn’t just asking Apple to turn off the security. It’s asking the company to write brand new software. It’s one thing to allow a wiretap. It’s something else entirely to conscript a private company into undermining its own product.
Apple CEO Tim Cook extended if not an olive branch, at least one of the first sensible ideas to come out of this spat. In an email to Apple employees he suggested everyone take a deep breath and do what some lawmakers have suggested: Form a commission of experts in intelligence, technology and civil liberties to recommend policies and laws that would prevent similar feuds in the future. Congress often lags a generation or two behind on technology issues. Let the experts help.
The judge based his order to compel Apple’s cooperation on a 1789 law. It’s time for a serious update, not a precedent set in the heat of the moment with both sides talking past each other.