It’s not only Apple. Hundreds of technology companies large and small are engaged in a historic battle to determine how much access governments can have to your personal information. This includes Google, Microsoft, and nearly every technology company that has significantly impacted your life over the last two decades.
The fight for personal privacy versus the state’s right to know has been a battle for millennia. Aristotle made the key distinction between the public and private spheres thousands of years ago. Benjamin Franklin is famously quoted by privacy advocates for saying, “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
Governments have always tried to erode personal privacy. They think that in order to protect the state and its citizens, the veil of personal privacy should be pulled back whenever necessary.
I understand the impulse to eliminate privacy protections. At least half of my friends and acquaintances -- even my wife -- can’t understand my passion for the topic. They say they aren’t doing anything illegal and those who marshal legal arguments against the government invading privacy must be hiding something.
So let me state some of the concerns that privacy advocates have against an even more intrusive government and see if it persuades you one way or the other.
The surveillance state
First, there’s not much left of your privacy as it stands. Corporations and government agencies already have far more access to our personal lives than most people would imagine or allow. If you want to understand the complete picture, read Bruce Schneier’s “Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control the World.” Bruce is no conspiracy theorist, but if you read his well-researched books and blog posts, you might have a hard time telling the difference between what he puts out there and the ramblings of the New World Order crew.
One of my favorite anecdotes in “Data and Goliath” is about the father who sues a retailer for sending pregnancy information and sales pitches to his teenage daughter. He had to drop the lawsuit after he learned that the online retailer knew more than he did.
We’re unknowingly surveilled and often permanently recorded by dozens of electronic devices each day. You may hate stoplight cameras, but did you know these cameras often record and store every license plate that passes by, whether or not you ran the light? Plus, your car’s GPS and various computers can enable police to know exactly where you’ve been.
There’s little our governments don’t already know about us. They know what you read and buy. They know where you drive, where you go on the Internet, who you communicate with.
The problem is that a society without privacy protections is not a free society. Although the government may tout extreme, individual circumstances that justify violation of privacy, once a new Rubicon is crossed, it's never uncrossed. In nearly every instance where governments have been given the legal right to invade our privacy, they exceed the given authority and exercise those privacy invasions to far more people and instances than permitted by a specific case.
Read anything written by James Bamford. His first book, published in 1983 and called the “Puzzle Palace,” reveals almost everything you might learn from a modern NSA whistleblower. The privacy abuses cited over three decades ago are still occurring -- at even more alarming levels. When the NSA or another spying agency is caught in an illegal act, the most common response, even after public uproar, is for politicians to legalize those illegal actions retroactively. It seems nothing any spying agency can do is considered truly illegal anymore. And they want the ability to do more of it.
It's not about the iPhone
On the face of it, the Apple case, where the FBI seeks more information about the San Bernardino terrorists, would seem like a small intrusion on personal freedom. After all, the government wants access to a single device of a known terrorist. What could be the harm in that? You might wonder why Apple or anyone else is against it.
In fact, the underlying issue is foundational to our freedom.
I routinely travel to countries where simply questioning a leader’s strategy in public is enough to get you locked up for a long time. These aren’t empty threats. People are picked up in bars and restaurants for voicing disagreements and never heard from again. People are locked in prison for talking smack about their employers on Facebook. In America, you can be fired for being that stupid, but you won’t be arrested unless you make an illegal threat. I routinely travel to countries where even your supposedly encrypted communications are recorded. No warrants, no suspicion -- because it can be done.
That’s why the Apple case is so important. One small decision can have all sorts of implications. If the government gets the right to insert backdoors or break encryption on a terrorist’s phone, then that decision can be applied to everyone. It hurts our personal privacy, it hurts our global competitiveness, and it hurts our survival as a free people.
So I applaud Apple, Google, Microsoft, and all the other technology firms for fighting on our behalf. There’s not a whole lot of our privacy left. They're trying to protect what little remains.