By Griffin Edwards ’17
On February 16, 2016, the Silicon Valley tech company Apple released a statement written by CEO Tim Cook publicly declaring that Apple would decline to obey an FBI order. At first glance, Cook and his employees may seem to be flagrantly disobeying government charges. One could even go so far as to characterize their refusal as contempt towards a federal mandate. However, Cook chose morality over legality, and will have plenty of hearings, I’m certain, to show for it.
Following the San Bernardino shooting, the FBI was left with the cell phone of one of the perpetrators, but had no way to access the information inside. Apparently this is a common conundrum for one of the most powerful agencies on Earth, because they didn’t ask Apple to simply break into one phone or access one account. Instead, the FBI requested Apple create an entirely new version of iOS, with a backdoor providing law enforcement with easy, Fourth-Amendment-less access to the contents of any iPhone.
Apple politely declined, fearing that doing so would expose the sensitive information contained on the billions of smartphones worldwide. Furthermore, Cook’s statement asserted that the FBI was absolutely outside of its jurisdiction (it was, by the way: according to data collection legislation currently on the books, the NSA and other federal agencies like it can get information from telephone conversations, but not from other functions of smartphones), and expressed fear that this backdoor software could, potentially, end up in the wrong hands.
Apple is anything but alone in this fight. In front of Apple stores across the country, as well as at its Northern California offices, pro-Apple protesters have appeared to show their support. Nationwide, it’s estimated that between sixty and seventy percent of the American populace does not support mass data collection like that done by the NSA or attempted by the FBI in the San Bernardino case. In short, the majority of people- Democrat, Republican, and independent- don’t support the government spying on its own citizens. This is remarkable: how rare is it to have an issue with such popular support?
If it’s true that most people are against the state acting in such a way, then how can the government get away with it, especially in what’s supposed to be one of the greatest democracies in the world? Perhaps the simplest way to think about this issue- and the forces at play- are through the prototypically American idea of separation of powers. In the minds of the framers, there would be three branches of government: executive, legislative, and judicial. These three prongs would balance each other out, ensuring that no one branch would gain so much power as to create any form of tyranny. In a Founding Fathers utopia, the legislature would make the laws, the executive branch would enforce them, and the judicial system would ensure that the laws were not repressive and were enacted fairly. Any fourth grader with basic civic knowledge could tell you as much.
However, in the course of 200-some years of government, the branches have certainly changed and evolved as history has shaped and influenced the American state. For instance, there are now an alphabet soup of departments: things like the FDA, DHS, NSA, FCC, and FTC all fall under this category. As executive departments, these organizations are charged with duties assigned them by a president, or, typically, the agency itself. The policies and actions of these departments are not explicitly condoned by the American public; nor are they voted on by elected officials. They simply are. And so, we get infuriating injustices like the Orwellian NSA surveillance uncovered by Snowden; gratuitous groping at DHS airport checkpoints; and arbitrarily enforced FTC antitrust policies that seriously skew the economy due to a lack of accountability by the American people or its representatives.
Each era seems to have a few big issues, and instances like the San Bernardino case are proof positive that data security will certainly be a hot topic in the coming years. How we balance personal freedom with national security has been a tough nut to crack since the inception of the United States, and the debate will reach a peak as we become more interconnected through technology (how many years until our washing machines, refrigerators, cars, and homes are all connected electronically? Certainly within our lifetime). However, the issue in the context of the FBI-Apple case is not only evidence of changing technology and the related consequences of privacy; it is grounded in issues of the American government acting in its own interest, rather than in that of its people, and that is a much graver, though perhaps seemingly less pressing, problem.