Alistair S Duff: Apple wrong in its refusal to unlock phone

Apple CEO Tim Cook has taken a stand on the right to privacy 'in refusing to help the FBI. Picture:  Justin Sullivan/Getty
Apple CEO Tim Cook has taken a stand on the right to privacy 'in refusing to help the FBI. Picture: Justin Sullivan/Getty
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Just how far can government go to get the information it needs? This age-old issue has resurfaced in the ongoing Apple-Federal Bureau of Investigation stand-off.

Briefly, the FBI recovered an iPhone belonging to Syed Farook, a perpetrator of last December’s San Bernardino, California, massacre, in which 14 people died. Naturally, they want access to the data stored within the device. Claiming that they needed Apple’s technical assistance, they tried to force the company to co-operate.

Last week, however, in an unexpected twist, they put their court action on hold, saying they might after all be able to unlock the phone.

In any case, Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, is refusing to play. His platform? Privacy. And he has tech corporations and libertarians the world over lined up behind him.

Their position is, I believe, mistaken. A murderer, dead or alive, has forfeited his right to secrecy. The public interest requires that the phone be “hacked” as soon as possible and its contents spilled. We need to know everything about the killer’s identity, his movements, his motives, his influences, his accomplices, his followers. This is a normal part of any criminal investigation.

Moreover, those encrypted data could help to stop another heinous crime. So justice trumps liberty in such cases. We need a victory for common sense, one that will hold in San Bernadino, Brussels, everywhere.

The threat of an Orwellian nightmare is a real one, and this is what Cook says he is worried about. That he has the courage to contemplate civil disobedience for his beliefs endears him to me.

But he has chosen the wrong battle. The anti-government mentality that sustained the electronic privacy movement from the beginning, and is still rampant in Apple’s own orchard of Silicon Valley, was never healthy.

The state is not the devil, not when it is properly constituted. On the contrary, it is, to quote neglected liberal philosopher T H Green, “an institution for the promotion of a common good”. And on any reasonable definition, that must include the following of leads for the prevention of bloodshed.

There are lines that must never be crossed in the pursuit of information. Torture, in particular. Waterboarding, stripping, hooding, force-fed Bruce Springsteen, all coercive methods are evil. Prisoners and detainees should be treated with dignity at all times. But while some of the practices of the American authorities have been, and probably still are, profoundly unethical, in this collision with Apple they are on the side of the angels.

It is not the deciphering of criminal networks that we should be alarmed about, but the mass surveillance of the innocent. There has been far too little effective political fall-out from the Edward Snowden revelations. A feeble commission here, a tweaking of the law there: that is by no means enough to reset the balance between state and citizen. We need a basic reversal of the surveillance juggernaut, with true repentance on the part of the authorities for their unprecedented intrusions into our personal space.

And not just our political masters, but employers and other agencies which in many cases seem to think that spying is now perfectly acceptable. It was not, is not and never shall be. People should be trusted unless and until there are specific grounds for suspicion.

Why is there such confusion about these issues? Picking up a theme introduced by copyright scholar Christopher May, I believe that we are in the throes of a massive normative crisis as regards morality, etiquette and law. New technology keeps outrunning our capacity as a society to function properly. Some conclude that nothing much can be done. Sacred cows like privacy are dead, get over it!

Such fatalism is unworthy of a scientific and democratic epoch. If we can co-operate in the conquest of outer space, we can surely civilise cyberspace and the global information society that is coming into being. This is one of the great causes of our century. It will only be harmed by defences of the indefensible after the manner of Tim Cook and his friends.

Alistair S Duff is professor of information policy at Edinburgh Napier University