Out of the bullet-riddled debris left settling in San Bernardino, California, last December emerges one of the most important privacy cases in modern times.
In a perfectly disguised plea for stronger safety measures to combat terrorism, the U.S. government is trying to force Apple to build a backdoor into its security software. Apple, in turn, has refused.
Three months ago, when the shots were fired that ultimately killed 14 people, police recovered an iPhone belonging to the terrorist responsible. However, the phone is inaccessible without first entering a four-digit passcode. Mathematically, that leaves 10,000 possible number combinations — a finite number, but one that leaves little room for mistake considering the phone destroys itself after 10 failed attempts.
All that potentially useful information sitting on a locked phone, and Apple has the audacity to stiff-arm the government’s efforts to protect Americans? According to a Pew Research Center study conducted between Feb. 18 and Feb. 21, more than half of the people polled think Apple should unlock the iPhone.
And who could blame the American people after such a terrible tragedy?
Nevertheless, these statistics seem odd coming from a population that was outraged after the National Security Agency’s privacy-breaching practices were exposed by Edward Snowden just a few years ago, and currently expresses a mere 19 percent trust in its own government, the lowest since Watergate. What the FBI is demanding of Apple is nothing short of a security infringement and, astonishingly, it’s getting away with it.
The FBI is far too resourceful to pretend it isn’t attempting a power-grab. If the goal is to get into “just the one phone,” as FBI Director James Comey has said, it should have been done weeks ago, regardless of what Apple claims is “impenetrable.” Comey went on to ask, “Have we become so mistrustful of government that we are willing to let bad guys walk away, willing to leave victims in search of justice?” If that were really the case, then yes, we are. Nineteen percent is a hard figure to forget.
The fact is, the FBI knows exactly what it’s doing, and in its own self-serving way, it’s brilliant. The argument against the FBI is mostly concerned with the legal precedent that a win in court will produce — a precedent that will allow the government to gain access to any phone in the future very easily. It is playing off people’s emotions after a tragedy such as San Bernardino to get it done, all while under the benevolent guise of “Protector Against Terrorism.”
The whole situation is reminiscent of the Patriot Act of 2001, when the government wore the same mask. Millions of Americans have complained about the act’s passage and violation of privacy for more than a decade now. But soon after 9/11, when the wounds were still fresh, more than half of people polled said they were OK with readily forfeiting some civil liberties to ensure protection from another terrorist attack.
Who could blame the American people after such a terrible tragedy?
John Lancaster is a contributing columnist for the Central Florida Future.