The conflict between Apple and the FBI over the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone has already had a huge amount of coverage, and that’s likely to continue for a while. The legal details and the technical details have already been written about at great length, but what is perhaps more interesting is why Apple is making such a point here. It isn’t, as some seem to be suggesting, because Apple doesn’t take terrorism seriously, and cares more about the privacy rights of a dead terrorist than it does its responsibilities to past and future victims of terrorism. Neither is it because Apple are the great guardians of our civil liberties and privacy, taking a stand for freedom. Apple aren’t champions of privacy any more than Google are champions of freedom of speech or Facebook are liberators of the poor people of India. Apple, Google and Facebook are businesses. Their bottom line is their bottom line. Individuals within all of those companies may well have particular political, ethical or moral stances in all these areas, but that isn’t the key. The key is business.
So why, in those circumstances, is Apple taking such a contentious stance? Why now? Why in this case? It is Apple, on the surface at least, that is making this into such a big deal – Tim Cook’s open letter didn’t just talk about the specifics of the case or indeed of iPhones, but in much broader terms:
“While we believe the FBI’s intentions are good, it would be wrong for the government to force us to build a backdoor into our products. And ultimately, we fear that this demand would undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect.”
It’s wonderful stuff – and from the perspective of this privacy advocate at least it should be thoroughly applauded. It should, however, also be examined more carefully, with several pinches of salt, a healthy degree of scepticism and a closer look at the motivations. Ultimately, Apple is taking this stance because Apple believes it’s in Apple’s interests to take this stance. There may be a number of reasons for this. In a broad sense, Apple knows that security – and this is very much a security as well as a privacy issue – is critical for the success of the internet and of the technology sector in general. Security and privacy are critical under-pinners of trust, and trust is crucial for business success. People currently do trust Apple (in general terms) and that really matters to Apple’s business. The critical importance, again in a broad sense, of security and trust is why the other tech giants – Google, Facebook, Twitter et al – have also lined up behind Apple, though their own brands and businesses rely far less on privacy than Apple’s does. Indeed, for Google and Facebook privacy is very much a double-edged sword: their business models depend on their being able to invade our privacy for their own purposes. Trust and security, however, are crucial.
In a narrower sense, Apple has positioned itself as ‘privacy-friendly’ in recent years – partly in contrast to Google, but also in relation to the apparent overreach of governmental authorities. Apple has the position to be able to do this – it’s business model is based on shifting widgets, not harvesting data – but Apple has also taken the view that people now really care about privacy, enough to make decisions at least influenced by their sense of privacy. This is where things get interesting. In the last section of my book, Internet Privacy Rights, where I speculate about the possibility of a more privacy-friendly future, this is one of the key messages: business is the key. If businesses take privacy seriously, they’ll create a technological future where privacy is protected – but they won’t take it seriously out of high-minded principle. They’ll only take it seriously because there’s money in it for them, and there will only be money in it for them if we, their customer, take privacy seriously.
That, for me, could be the most positive thing to come from this story so far. Not just Apple but pretty much all the tech companies (in the US at least) have taken stances which suggest that they think people do take privacy seriously. A few years ago that would have been much less likely – and it is a good sign, from my perspective at least. Ultimately, as I’ve argued many times before, a privacy-friendly internet is something that we will all benefit from – even law enforcement. It is often very hard to see it that way, but in the long term the gains in security, in trust and much more will help us all.
That’s why in the UK, the Intelligence and Security Committee’s report criticised the new Investigatory Powers Bill for not making protection of privacy more prominent. As they put it:
“One might have expected an overarching statement at the forefront of the legislation, or to find universal privacy protections applied consistently throughout the draft Bill”
It is also why the FBI is playing a very dangerous game by taking on Apple in this way. Whilst it is risky for Apple to be seen as ‘on the side of the terrorists’ it may be even more risky for the FBI (and by implication the whole government of the US) to be seen as wanting to ride roughshod over everyone’s privacy. This is a battle for hearts and minds as much as a battle over the data in one phone, data that it is entirely possible is pretty much useless. Right now, it is hard to tell exactly who is winning that battle – but right now my money would be on the tech companies. I hope I’m right, because in the end that would be to the benefit of us all.