How techies are losing the Apple-FBI privacy fight

If you pit only logic and reason against fear-mongering about terrorists, you will lose -- every single time

The geeks are approaching the Apple-vs.-FBI battle over encryption and privacy all wrong. This is a golden opportunity to get John Q. Public on board regarding data privacy and online security. Instead, we have a cacophony of conflicting information and noise, and the FBI is winning in the court of public opinion.

It's high time Jane Q. Citizen got to see a clear example of how the U.S. government is slowly but surely chipping away at personal privacy under the guise of national security. And you couldn't have a better company standing up to the government: the one behind some of the most popular consumer electronics devices today. There's none of the squickiness of Google and its constant slurping of data, or Facebook's desire to collect information about people you know and things you like. Apple is not merely a tech company -- hate it or love it, Apple is indubitably a lifestyle brand.

But there is a stark difference in how Apple and the FBI and the Justice Department, along with their allies, are framing the conversation. As a result, Apple and the techies are losing John's and Jane's attention by railing about backdoors, encryption, and legal precedents.

Those detailed explainers and FAQs certainly lay out what's at stake. But it's the FBI that comes off looking reasonable. The FBI is, it regularly reminds us, trying find out why two people killed 14 people and injured 22 a few months ago as part of a mass shooting, which it continually describes as terrorism.

It's so reasonable, in fact, that there's this headline: "San Bernardino terror attack victims' families ask Apple to cooperate with FBI." The side relying on emotions and fear is always going to win against the side carefully crafting logical arguments. It may be in the nature of technical people to avoid emotions and favor logic, but that's one reason why the FBI is winning the hearts and minds of Americans here. 

The thing is, even with all the secret documents that Snowden stole from the NSA, the average user isn't any more concerned about government surveillance today than he or she was three years ago. Sure, it's terrible, but when it comes to user privacy it's still a world of weak passwords, mobile devices with no passcode (or TouchID) enabled, and an overall lack of urgency. Skip the arguments about how if the FBI wins this round, law enforcement will keep coming back with more requests against more devices. 

If the Janes and Johns are scared of anything, it's the foreign other, the faceless enemies sitting in China, Russia, and Iran (why not throw North Korea in the mix, too?). It's the criminals siphoning money from banks, the nation-state actors stealing personal information from government agencies, and adversaries trying to stop a movie release. 

If the FBI gets its way on bypassing this iPhone 5c's protections, what would stop other governments from coming to Apple, Dell, and other companies and asking for help modifying the devices we use to further their own purposes? It won't be the first time a government tried to compel a company to modify technology in the name of national security. Remember BlackBerry?

"While the FBI's request seems to go beyond what other governments have sought from Apple so far, if Apple is forced to develop code to exploit its own phones, it will only be a matter of time before other countries seek to do the same," Jennifer Granick, the director of civil liberties at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, wrote on the NYU School of Law's Just Security blog.

She's right, and that's a scary enough prospect to justify supporting Apple. Techies may not like the emotionalism and consider it to be FUD. But it's not FUD. It truly is scary -- and should be talked about that way.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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